Tony Finau reacts to his birdie putt on 15 during the third round of the Masters Tournament Saturday, April 13, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. Jason Getz / Special to the AJC
Photo: Jason Getz/Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz/Jason Getz

Finau gets childhood wish to play in final group at major with Woods

He gets a shot at Tiger Woods in the final round of a major championship, something he has dreamt of since he watched Woods carve up the 1997 Masters and inspired Finau, then seven years old, to take up a game he’d never tried. On Saturday, he nearly broke Augusta National's course record with a 64 to get there and if he is supposed to be intimidated by such a powerful moment, he never got the memo.

“I think a lot of us (younger players) try to be like (Woods) and try to be that way to where nothing on the golf course can scare us and our skills can showcase,” he said. “I think there will always be a Tiger Effect because it is Tiger.

“But it's a different era and he's playing against a different ... just a different generation. He’s playing against guys that he kind of bred.”

Finau will hit at the tee at 9:20 a.m., tied with Woods at 11 under and two shots behind leader Francesco Molinari. He made sure the field knew he was serious right away on Saturday. Having played his first two rounds in 3 under, which left him tied with seven others four shots off the pace, he dropped three more shots to par within his first 10 swings of the third round, turning his moving day into a thrill ride.

After birdieing his first three holes, Finau seized the day at No. 8, sending a blind 261-yard second shot to within eight inches of the cup for a tap-in eagle. That was good for a two-stroke lead on the gang of five who shared the midway lead. Rickie Fowler, passing on a neighboring fairway, gave him a thumbs-up.

“Not bad, eh?” Finau yelled.

“Yeah, well,” Fowler replied, “you could have made it.”

After the turn, Finau continued to peel strokes from par even when he missed his marks. He pulled his second shot on par-5 No. 13 into a back bunker and left his explosion 11 feet shy of the cup. But his first putt found the hole on its final rotation and with the birdie, he reached 10-under and was three strokes up on the second-round leaders.

At the par-5 15th, he reached the center of the green easily in two but left his 42-foot eagle try six feet short. Again, he canned it for his last birdie of the day to maintain a two-shot edge. He had played the par-5’s at 10 under this week and one more bird would tie the course record. But he never got close enough to the remaining three pins for a legitimate try.

“I had to keep making birdies because I knew they were going to have lots of opportunities for the guys who are playing well,” said Finau, who teed off 80 minutes before the leaders and watched his lead contract. “More than anything, just keep my foot on the gas pedal and not let off. Looking at the scoreboard, I may not even be leading after today but I'm well in contention and I'm happy about that.”

Sure enough, four minutes after he finished, Molinari just missed a hole-in-one for a birdie No. 12. By the time Finau left the interview room, Molinari had leap-frogged him with three more straight birdies. Didn't really matter. Finau he still got his wish. Woods, now 43, gets a Sunday close-up with a kid, now grown to 29, he once inspired.

“Oh, man, it would be an unbelievable thing for me and something I've dreamed of for a long time,” Finau said. “As a kid, I always wanted to compete against him and have the opportunity to, you know ... I've dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship and it would be quite a cool thing for me if I were to play with him (Sunday) in the final group of the Masters.

“It would be a dream come true for me.”

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