2018-04-05 21:18:07
Tony Finau Steals Masters Spotlight After Dislocating Ankle

21:18, April 05 230 0

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Maybe the tone of the opening day of the 2018 Masters tournament was set when the defending champion, Sergio García, hit five balls into the pond in front of the 15th hole for an eventual eight-over par 13. It was the highest score ever registered on the 15th hole at the Masters, which has been played here since 1934.

Later, Jordan Spieth, the 2015 Masters champion who was slumping not long ago, endured a topsy-turvy front nine before roaring through the back nine in four under par, finishing with a six-under 66 and a two-stroke lead after the first round.

Spieth was closely pursued by an elite but subtly surprising field of challengers that included six major championship winners within five strokes of the lead. Rory McIlroy was there, having shot a 69, and Phil Mickelson was one stroke behind McIlroy. Both only recently rediscovered their winning ways in tournament golf.

Tiger Woods, whom many expected to contend, was not near the top of the leader board, although he did not play his way out of event either, shooting a one-over-par 73.

But of all startling things that transpired Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club, none was more unexpected than Tony Finau rebounding a day after dislocating his left ankle to register a four-under 68. That score left Finau, who had injured himself while celebrating a hole-in-one in the tournament’s par-3 contest, in a tie for second place with Matt Kuchar.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle, if you ask me,” Finau said of his performance.

When Finau walked off the 18th green Thursday — with a slight limp — it had only been about 24 hours since television cameras captured him running backward with his arms over his head as he rejoiced in the wake of his hole-in-one in the largely ceremonial par-3 contest.

But things went from winsome to gruesome quickly, as Finau’s left foot landed off-balance and the ankle bent awkwardly while he slid to the turf. The distorted ankle was plain to see, and the view became more cringe-worthy as cameras captured Finau reaching down with his left hand and popping the ankle back into place.

Or as Finau, 28, said Thursday evening, looking back on the injury and the video of it that he had already watched several times: “I saw where it was and I knew where it needed to be. I popped it back in and tried to be as smooth as I could be.”

But on Wednesday evening Finau, who was playing in his first Masters, left the golf course to be examined by doctors. Withdrawing from the tournament seemed a likely outcome.

“It was pretty devastating,” his father, Kelepi Finau, said Thursday as he stood near the Augusta National clubhouse. “Tony had waited a long time to play in the Masters. It had been almost a lifelong dream, and now we were getting ready to pack up without him playing.”

But a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed that the only serious damage was torn ligaments. It was, Finau said, a sprained ankle, albeit a bad one.

“Tony called me about 11 p.m. last night and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I think I’m going to play tomorrow,’” Finau’s father said.

After a hefty amount of athletic tape was wrapped around Finau’s ankle, he went to Augusta National and headed to the practice range early.

“I knew I’d have to compensate for the injury and couldn’t put all my weight on the left foot in my swing,” Finau said. “With my caddie, we came up with a plan that let me swing without making it worse — because I want to play four rounds here.”

Finau bogeyed the first hole on Thursday — a typical occurrence for Masters rookies, even those with two healthy ankles. And then he settled down.

“I think my injury masked a little of the pressure,” Finau said later, “because I had to worry about my foot. I had other things on my mind.”

After nine holes, the 6-foot-4 Finau, who is one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, was three under par. When he birdied the par-5 14th hole, he was in the lead at four under. He wobbled — sometimes literally — on the final holes but finished with an impressive up-and-down par on the 18th hole after he sprayed his approach shot into the crowd adjacent to the green.

A few minutes later, Kelepi Finau, who came to the United States in the mid-1960s from the island of Tonga, was in tears trying to summarize the turn of events. He talked about how his son, who was born and raised in Utah, had been inspired to give up football and basketball to concentrate on golf when he watched Woods’s inaugural Masters victory in 1997.

“Tiger made golf look cool,” Kelepi Finau said. “And to think Tony’s now been given this opportunity to play here is just wonderful.”

Kelepi Finau wiped his eyes.

“This is a holy place in the game of golf,” he said. “You have to have faith and feel the spirit of the grounds. They let my kid play today.”