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Confidence level for Utah’s Tony Finau ‘as high as it has ever been’ before a major

Utah native Tony Finau watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during a practice around for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Rochester, N.Y. Finau is feeling good about his game heading into the second major of the year.
Utah native Tony Finau watches his tee shot on the 17th hole during a practice around for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Rochester, N.Y. Finau is feeling good about his game heading into the second major of the year. | Abbie Parr, Associated Press

Once dogged by questions about why he couldn’t win on the PGA Tour, Salt Lake City native Tony Finau has emphatically silenced his critics by winning four tournaments in the last nine months, most recently the Mexico Open on April 30 in Vallarta, Mexico.

It was Finau’s sixth PGA Tour victory, remarkable considering the former Lehi resident picked up just one win in his first six years on Tour, the Puerto Rico Open, in 2016.

“My game is better than it has ever been and my confidence level is as high as it has ever been leading up to the majors season, so that is the exciting part for me. I look forward to this week.” — former Utah resident Tony Finau

Few golfers on the planet are hotter right now than the 33-year-old father of five, who grew up in the Rose Park area of Salt Lake City hitting balls into a mattress in his family’s garage because they couldn’t afford range balls at nearby Rose Park Golf Course.

As he has prepared for the 2023 PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York, this week, Finau is facing a different set of questions.

When will he break through and win one of golf’s four major championships?

Finau told reporters in New York on Tuesday after getting in a practice round Monday on the par-70 East Course layout that will play to around 7,394 yards that he is as confident as he’s ever been heading into a major championship.

“Yeah, I don’t think the recipe changes too much for me, with the type of golf I have been playing lately,” he said. “My game is better than it has ever been and my confidence level is as high as it has ever been leading up to the majors season, so that is the exciting part for me. I look forward to this week.”

Later Tuesday, Finau learned that he will be playing in a group with Australia’s Adam Scott and fellow Ryder Cup hopeful Max Homa, one of Finau’s teammates on the winning Presidents Cup team last September. They will tee off at 11:36 a.m. MDT Thursday and 6:11 a.m. MDT Friday.

After winning in Mexico, Finau caddied for his children on a par-3 course at Vadanta hours after collecting the trophy and paycheck, and the video shot by the PGA Tour and posted online went viral.

Tony Finau holds the championship trophy after his victory in the final round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Sunday, April 30, 2023. The victory was Finau’s fourth in the last nine months. | Moises Castillo, Associated Press
Tony Finau holds the championship trophy after his victory in the final round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Sunday, April 30, 2023. The victory was Finau’s fourth in the last nine months. | Moises Castillo, Associated Press

Explaining why he was doing that instead of celebrating his second win of the 2022-23 season, he repeated an oft-used phrase about being a “full-time father and a part-time golfer.”

Finau tied for 23rd the following week at the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow in North Carolina, then took last week off from the Byron Nelson in Dallas to get ready for what will be his ninth PGA Championship.

“The game feels good,” he said. “I am (having) a solid season overall. Whenever you can win coming up to a major championship, I think it gives you confidence that you can play well and I think that is definitely the case this week for me.

“I feel like a different player, more so than I have ever been, more confident in my game and my abilities than I have ever been, and just who I am as a person and as a player,” he continued.

Other than his stellar play of late, what gives Finau confidence that he can contend this week?

“Yesterday I played 18 holes here, and it is a golf course that fits my style. It is long. You gotta hit in the fairway, and those are things that I have done well over this past year and I think I can take that into this week,” he said.

If there’s a cause for concern for Finau this week, it is that he hasn’t played exceptionally well in his last five majors; he was 26th in the Masters last month at Augusta National, and tied for 35th in the 2022 Masters. He tied for 30th at last year’s PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and missed the cut at the 2022 U.S. Open before finishing T28 at The Open Championship last summer at St. Andrews.

Finau’s best finish in the PGA was a T4 in 2020 at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, an event won by Collin Morikawa. When Phil Mickelson won at Kiawah Island in 2021 to become the oldest major championship winner in history at the age of 50 years, 11 months and seven days, Finau tied for eighth.

Finau said Tuesday he generally plays well in majors because the courses are more difficult than the standard PGA Tour fare. He has made the cut in 22 of his 27 major tournament appearances, and is seven for eight at the PGA in terms of cuts made.

Oak Hill “is a proper test” for a major championship, Finau said Monday on the Golf Channel, noting that it has been a U.S. Open venue (1956, 1968, 1989) and also hosted a Ryder Cup (1995). The last two times the PGA Championship was at Oak Hill, in 2013 and 2003, it produced a first-time major champion, as Jason Dufner won 10 years ago and Shaun Micheel broke through 20 years ago.

“You gotta drive it in the fairway. That’s a start, no question. If you are hitting it out of the rough all week, you are going to have a pretty short week,” Finau said. “I think it just starts from the tee box. … If you play it right and you hit enough fairways, it is a golf course you can score on. But it isn’t one that (you can overpower).”

Only four-time major champion Rory McIlroy has more top-10 finishes in majors the last five years without a win than Finau. McIlroy has 11 of those, while Finau and Xander Schauffele have nine each. Jordan Spieth has seven.

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After claiming that tougher courses “fit my game well,” Finau was asked Tuesday why that’s the case. He said it is due to his mental makeup, and also his ability to drive the ball reasonably straight.

“I just feel like mentally you have really got to be there, and emotionally,” he said. “I think it has been proven that the guys that win kinda have that mental fortitude to do that. I feel like I have that.”

That said, Finau knows he hasn’t proven that yet with a major championship victory.

“But I feel like I have those tools to overcome these types of tests, the really tough golf courses,” he said. “This definitely fits that bill. This is going to be a big golf course to handle. None of the holes I played yesterday, I looked at and said, ‘I am going to birdie these holes this week, for sure.’ … You just have to play well for all four days if you are going to win this week.”

Oak Hill features only two par-5s for the tournament, and both of which can play longer than 600 yards. Four of the par-4s are longer than 500 yards.

“So it is all you can handle, but that is what you want in a major championship,” Finau said. “It is a golf course where the guy that is going to win this week is going to be driving the golf ball very well.”

Tony Finau signs autographs during a practice around for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Rochester, N.Y. Finau is among the favorites to win this week’s event. | Eric Gay, Associated Press
Tony Finau signs autographs during a practice around for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, in Rochester, N.Y. Finau is among the favorites to win this week’s event. | Eric Gay, Associated Press