“Finau, how’s the ankle?” a guy hollers down from the covered patio overlooking the eighth green at Quail Hollow Club.
“All good, bro,” Tony Finau replies, smiling up from under his gray flat-brimmed Nike hat.
“First time today anybody’s asked that,” another fan cracks.
As Finau strides up the path toward the ninth tee box, he gets the same question again. And again. “How’s your ankle?” a woman asks. “Like you haven’t heard that a million times!”
After more smiles and multiple “betters,” he jokes — without a hint of annoyance in his voice — “I’m gonna have my caddy wear a bib (that says) ‘The Ankle’s Getting Better.’ “
It’s been four weeks since the grisly scene at the Masters, where the fast-rising 28-year-old star rolled his left ankle out of its socket while running around celebrating a hole-in-one during the pre-tournament Par 3 Contest, popped it back into place, then walked it off on the way to an astonishing 10th-place finish at golf’s greatest major.
But Wednesday afternoon, at nearly every turn at Quail Hollow, Finau encountered fans shouting the “a” word as he passed by them on his way through the Pro-Am round on the eve of the Wells Fargo Championship.
“I don’t mind talking about the ankle,” Finau says, and he’s honest about the reason: “Because it’s brought a lot of attention to me. ... I’ve heard all the jokes. The whole thing’s quite funny.”
Well, it is now, at least.
When it happened, it was quite painful in more ways than one. With a large throng of fans cheering him on as he charged down the fairway at Augusta National Golf Club on April 4, all riled up about his 12th career hole-in-one, Finau started running backwards and the ankle caved in — or, rather, inward — on him.
He briefly crumpled, then seemed to nonchalantly push it back into place before gingerly getting back on his feet.
“I was a little embarrassed, but I didn’t know if anybody saw what happened and I didn’t know if the cameras were still following me, so I was trying to just play it cool,” he says. “Obviously, that was the furthest thing from the truth as far as nobody seeing it. Everybody saw it.” (Asked whether he has gone back to watch the replay: “I only needed to see it once. I’ve seen it once and played it in my head about a million times.”)
A Thursday-morning MRI showed Finau had sustained a high-ankle sprain, but he became the instant-comeback story of the tournament by shooting 68-74-73-66 — including a string of six birdies on the back nine in the final round — to finish just inside the Top 10 in his Masters debut.
So, four weeks later, how is the ankle really?
“I still have to be cautious about not rolling it,” he says. “I’m trying to continue to strengthen it by walking and playing and doing exercises and stuff to make sure it doesn’t end up on its back again. I still do a lot of therapy on it, hot and cold, ice and heat at night. I have this thing called the Marc Pro, which kind of throbs just to keep blood pressure flow in the area. I’m in the Massage Envy trailer a lot. I get assistance from them, and my trainer, on strength and flexibility for the ankle. It’s actually taped as well, before I play, just to keep it stable.”
Of course, that’s a lot of information to fit on his caddy’s bib. So in the meantime, throughout play in Charlotte this week, he fully expects to get asked about his ankle another million or so times.
And he’ll be happy to hear about it.
That said, there are plenty of other questions besides “How’s your ankle?” that could lead to interesting answers from the young man widely regarded as one of the nicest players on the PGA Tour. For example:
“Where are you from?” He and his family — wife Alayna, and their children (sons Jraice, 6, Tony Jr., 3, and Sage, 2, and daughter Nene, 5) — live in Lehi, Utah, a small city about 30 minutes south of Salt Lake City that is named for a prophet in the Book of Mormon.
It’s a comfortable life; so far this year, he’s earned $2.6 million in 14 events on the tour. But he was born and raised in Salt Lake’s Rose Park neighborhood around street gangs and rampant drug and alcohol use.
“Golf was my out,” Finau says. “I got involved in golf and it kept me out of trouble.” He and his younger brother Gipper spent countless hours hitting balls into a mattress that their father, Kelepi, hung from the ceiling of their garage.
Tony, Gipper and their seven siblings are the first generation in their family to be born in the U.S. In the mid-’70s, his father’s family immigrated from Tonga and his mother’s family immigrated from American Samoa. After marrying in L.A., Kelepi and Ravena Finau moved to Utah, where Kelepi was transferred by his employer, Delta Airlines. (He worked graveyard shifts in cargo.) Tony Finau is the first person of Tongan and American Samoan descent to ever play on the PGA Tour. And yes, he is Mormon.
“Is golf a big deal in Polynesia?” “Golf is so foreign to the Polynesian community,” Finau says. “Nobody plays golf. Like, on my dad’s island, I think they have like a seven-hole course, and it barely even gets used. That’s right. A seven-hole course. So I definitely know that I’m doing something a lot different than what normal Polynesians do. You know, we’re more known for rugby and football and things like that. But hopefully they can look at me and see it’s OK to be different, and do something different. You never know what you can become if you don’t try something.”
“Are any of your own kids playing golf?” “Nah, not yet. My (oldest) son has played. I’ll take him to the range with me and he’ll whack some balls around, but nothing serious at all. I mean, if I’m not home, they’re not playing golf.”
“Do you think you’ll have more kids?” “We’d like to at least have one more,” Finau says. “We’ll probably do five or six. We come from big families. I think Polynesians in general, but also the Mormon community, LDS, we like big families. I have five brothers and three sisters. (My wife) has three sisters and a brother.”
“Is your family with you in Charlotte?” “Not this week,” Finau says. “They’re gonna come out next week during The Players. My kids come out probably about seven or eight times a year, then my wife probably twice as many. So maybe about half the events.” That’s his immediate family, though. He actually has extended family in Fort Mill, S.C., which is where he’s bunking while in town for the Wells Fargo Championship. “It’s a cool change of pace for me, instead of the norm, which is hotel, golf course, hotel, golf course. It’s a little more relaxing hanging out with family and eating home-cooked meals.” On Tuesday night, Finau watched a cousin win a playoff soccer game at Nations Ford High School; and at some point this week, “I think we might hit Carowinds, because I love roller coasters.”
“OK, so how the heck do you hit the ball so far?” “I’ve always been able to generate speed,” says Finau, who ranks second in the PGA in driving distance with a 317.6-yard average. “And the only way to hit it far is you have to have a lot of speed, and you have to hit it in the center of the club face, which gives you maximum distance. I also have a really long arc because my arms are so long (the 6-foot-4 former high school basketball player can dunk without a running start), which is a big advantage because the arc on your swing is gonna be a lot wider. So a part of it just has to do with my physique, too.”
“Do you have any routines for tournament days?” “Well, obviously, I’m a man of faith, so I always say my prayers before I leave my bedroom every day. Also, in 2011, my mom passed away in a tragic car accident. Her favorite color was green, so I thought it would be pretty cool way to remember her, to always wear green on Sunday. Green shirt, green hat, green pants. ... She was a huge part of my life, a huge part of my success. Every tough situation our family was ever in, she was always there to clean it up. She was always smiling and she loved giving hugs, and those are all things that I incorporate in who I am. She meant everything to me.”
“Aside from your ancestry, your ankle, your big drives and your big family, what do you want to be known for?” “As far as golf is concerned, I’d love to be one of the best of my generation, to someday be in the Hall of Fame. But I was raised by great parents, and it’s important to me to be a great people person, too. ... I have a foundation that I started in 2014, for kids, and that’s more my goal than anything else: to be a person that changed lives for the good, and to be that special light that I think that a lot of kids and a lot of people need.”
“How are you feeling about your chances this week?” “This golf course sets up great for me,” says Finau, who has played Quail Hollow three times before — finishing in a tie for 16th in 2015, a tie for 28th in 2016, and a tie for 44th at last year’s PGA Championship. “And I’m carrying some confidence from last week into this week.” (Last week, he and Daniel Summerhays teamed up to finish in a tie for sixth at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, Finau’s first action since Masters.)
Finau teed off in the first round on Thursday morning as a pretty strong contender, with two of seven PGATour.com experts tagging him as one of the four top favorites to win, while Vegas odds had him at 35-1, tied for 11th-best of all the picks. (He shot a 2-under 69 in Round 1 to finish in a tie for 16th place.
All of this begs one final question: “If you win on Sunday, will you please try not to celebrate quite so passionately?”
Says Finau, laughing: “My feet are planted from now on. No more running.”
Janes: 704-358-5897; Twitter: @theodenjanes