Friday, September 29, 2023

2022 St. Jude Championship: Tony Finau misses third straight win but builds confidence in FedEx Cup Playoffs

Tony Finau is not unaccustomed to finishing in the top 10, though short of a trophy, at a PGA Tour event this late in the season. However, his T6 on Sunday at the St. Jude Championship, the first FedEx Cup Playoffs event, didn’t come with the usual tinge of disappointment. 

After a career full of near-misses when it came to winning PGA Tour tournaments, Finau took The Northern Trust to start the FedEx Cup Playoffs last season, and then ripped off the 3M Open and Rocket Mortgage Classic consecutively to end his 2022 regular season. 

Three wins in the last 12 months.

This week at TPC Southwind, Finau was the defending champion — somewhat strange, given that he’s never won a golf tournament there. He was looking to become just the second golfer since Rory McIlroy in 2014 to win three consecutive PGA Tour starts. Dustin Johnson did it in 2017, and Finau would have joined a list that also includes Tiger Woods, David Duval and Vijay Singh. Those five are the only Tour pros to accomplish the feat in the last quarter of a century. Depending on how you interpret the data, Tiger did it 14 different times.

For the first three rounds in Memphis to start this year’s playoffs, the hunt was alive for Finau. He opened with 64 to put his name near the top of the leaderboard and — incredibly — barely lowered his scoring average over his last 10 rounds. Scores of 68 and 69 followed, and Finau gave himself an outside chance at winning as he trailed the lead by just four strokes heading to the final round. He closed with 68, including a fairly ho-hum even-par 35 on the second nine, which is where he struggled throughout most of the week. The 68 was a nice Sunday score, but not nearly enough to join D.J. in his 2016-17 season with three straight wins.

Still, Finau’s numbers remain exceptional; he entered the week ranked No. 3 in the world behind only Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler in strokes gained from tee to green since May 1. He beat both of those players this week, so he will have either have closed the gap or erased it altogether. Tee-to-green play is not the only formula for winning golf tournaments, but it’s certainly the simplest one. Finau was statistically solid all the way around this week in Memphis, but he did not excel in any one area and uncharacteristically struggled off the tee. In fact, even though he still gained strokes off the tee, this week was his second-worst driving performance since the beginning of March behind only the U.S. Open.

That’s something that can (and likely will) be fixed over the next two tournaments. There is much incentive for Finau to improve in the area where he has thrived the most over the course of his career. The $18 million first prize for winning the FedEx Cup looms large, but so does winning a FedEx Cup. No, it’s not a major championship, and it may not even be tantamount to winning Riviera or Muirfield Village or Bay Hill. However, it’s tough to fake a FedEx Cup, especially when you have to win the Tour Championship to do it. It would only add to his suddenly expanding career résumé.

Because of the way he finished the regular season, as well as his performance at TPC Southwind, Finau moved up a spot into sixth in the FedEx Cup standings ahead of the last two playoff events. He has a nice look at grabbing one of the top handful of spots at the Tour Championship and beginning the finale with a healthy lead on the field of 30. To think about Finau starting a golf tournament at 10 under or 8 under right now is terrifying.

It’s fair to say that while this is not a far different Finau than in past years in terms of his talent and statistical success, his confidence is as high as it has ever been on the PGA Tour. After two wins and another top 10 this week in Memphis, how could it not be? So while Finau does not lead the FedEx Cup after falling just short of a rare third straight win at the FedEx St. Jude Championship this weekend, he does take 13 sub-70 rounds in a row into the BMW Championship. When you factor in his FedEx Cup standing and sustained quality of play, he’s arguably in the best position of anyone to win the PGA Tour’s three-week postseason event. 

Finau’s near-misses in the past didn’t always feel great, but this one, when you consider what preceded it, has a lot of folks even more optimistic than ever about the future.

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