Two weeks ago at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico, Tony Finau gathered with his team around the practice putting green to work on the one thing that has kept him from winning golf tournaments. It’s no grave secret that Finau has ranked outside the top 100 in strokes gained putting in four of the past five seasons, but deeper dive into the stats shows precisely why the flat stick has held him back at key times.
When Finau putts from 10-25 feet, he is well above the PGA Tour average for make percentage. Even when you go beyond that and address his overall lag-putting skills, Finau ranked No. 4 on tour last season in approach putt performance. It’s not a distance control issue. The struggle comes when you put him 4-10 feet from the hole, the critical zone where momentum-saving pars and clutch birdies are converted into victories. Finau made only 28 percent of his putts from 9 feet last season, which ranked No. 187 on tour. Golf can be a complicated game, but sometimes it’s simply about your weaknesses and what it will take to improve them.
For this reason, Finau makes for one of the most interesting case studies in professional golf. He has only two professional victories – the 2014 Stonebrae Classic on what was then the Web.com Tour and the 2016 Puerto Rico Open, a PGA Tour event held opposite the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship – but he still has managed to become the No. 15 player in the world. He earned a spot on the 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup team and went 2-1-0 in Paris, a performance that likely influenced U.S. Presidents Cup captain Tiger Woods to select him for next month’s match at Royal Melbourne.
Golf fans know Tony Finau. They know he played with Woods in the final threesome at this year’s Masters and subsequently finished third at the Open Championship, those being two of the five top-10s he has collected in majors the past couple of years. And they know he momentarily dislocated his ankle during the Par-3 Contest at the 2018 Masters and then shot an opening 68 less than 24 hours later.
They just don’t know him as a winner. That’s why he was out on the putting green in Mexico, using one ball and rotating it around an 8-foot circle. He lined it up each time as if in a tournament scenario, visualizing a moment in which he needed to come through.
“My time (to win) is coming. I know it is,” Finau said to a question he must be tired of answering. “I’ve just got to keep riding out the storm.”
… a player who finishes fifth at a full-field event has “won” against nearly 140 players and “lost” against only four. Of course, measuring tournament results this way does not make for dramatic television.
This is an interesting dichotomy. Finau, 30, has established himself as one of the elite players in the game, a guy with the talent to win any golf tournament. He’s won more than $10 million since the start of 2018. You could argue that, despite not winning recently, his time is already here. That’s not how he measures his year, however, and Finau will head into 2020 with something to prove.
“It’s been a good year, a little disappointing,” Finau said. “I was looking to win this year. I felt like my game was ready going into the season after some Ryder Cup experience, and I had a few close calls. … The experience is going to pay off eventually, and I think I just have to stay patient.”
We spend a great deal of time measuring golfers like Finau by victories, or lack thereof, but golf isn’t a binary game with one winner and one loser. The more accurate reality is that a player who finishes fifth at a full-field event has “won” against nearly 140 players and “lost” against only four. Of course, measuring tournament results this way does not make for dramatic television.
Maybe no player is given a harder time about not winning more often than Rickie Fowler. He has won nine times worldwide, including five PGA Tour victories. Perhaps he should own more trophies by this point in his career, but the 30-year-old also ended the past five calendar years ranked in the top 12 in the world. Some players have won more tournaments than Fowler in that span, but how many would trade for his consistency?
When Jason Day was asked at Mayakoba about the issue of consistency versus winning, he echoed the thoughts of many players by saying winning is what they aspire to each week, but consistency is king.
“I think if you ask a guy like (Matt) Kuchar if he’d like to win more or if he would take consistency the way that he’s been, I think he would probably take consistency over winning once and missing a bunch of cuts,” Day said. “I’ve always struggled to understand peaking for four or five tournaments a year. Why can’t we just win them all, you know what I mean? But it’s achievable, I mean nothing’s not achievable. It’s very hard to do. I know how hard it is.”
While high-level consistency is many players’ hope, the reward for winning has become substantial. A player who wins a fall PGA Tour event – and there are now 11 of them – receives full status for the remainder of the season and two additional seasons. For example, Lanto Griffin’s Houston Open victory last month secured him a job through the 2021-2022 season. In addition, winning can bring berths in certain majors, the Players Championship, World Golf Championship events and other no-cut contests like January’s Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua. Victory also brings other perks like better tee times.
Winning a PGA Tour event is akin to an NFL player immediately being guaranteed a multi-year contract that can’t be terminated after an outstanding game. It’s all part of the temptation of tournament golf, the allure of being one great week from a reward that arguably outweighs the achievement.
We collectively value winning golf tournaments more than we should, but we’re constantly reminded of how meaningful a victory is to players. Few have been as consistent as Tommy Fleetwood in recent times, but he went nearly two years without winning before capturing the European Tour’s Nedbank Golf Challenge two Sundays ago.
“It has been a long time coming, and I’m not one to complain, but I really did want to win something,” said Fleetwood, who was emotional in the wake of his triumph. “You know, it’s the best. Like winning is just such a good feeling. You know, everybody puts a lot of hard work in, week in week out, and you wait for your time to come. Probably impatient most of the time.”
The middle ground, the sweet spot, is somewhere in between all of this. Hoisting a trophy at the end of a week is part of golf’s charm, and the fact it doesn’t happen very often for even the best in the world is an indicator of how special it is.
But it’s not necessarily the best indicator of player performance. In a game of few victories, it’s everything else that says the most.
Top photo: Final scoreboard at the 2019 Open Championship (David Davies, PA Images/Getty Images)
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