One moment Tony Finau was skipping down an Augusta National backyard fairway, like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road, enjoying a moment of undistilled bliss.
A man who was born a world apart from the golfing culture, who was sparked to pick up club when another player of color dominated the 1997 Masters, was acting out a dream. He had just aced the seventh hole of the Masters par 3 contest, and he was so happy he could not contain himself. So, he began running, bounding, dancing his way toward the green. Back at the tee box, his wife and four children exulted.
The next, Finau was crumpled upon the perfect grass, all that joy taking a freakish twist. He had stubbed his left foot on the turf, and dislocated his ankle. After assessing the damage, Finau almost nonchalantly maneuvered it back into place.
Ah, but golfers are tough. At least one is.
Few witnessing that moment could imagine Finau showing up for his first Masters tee time Thursday at 12:43. Much less shooting 68 in his first-ever Masters round, with his ankle taped up tight. Finau said he took no pain-killing injections.
“To me, it's a miracle,” he said Thursday evening. “My foot was out of place 24 hours ago. And I sit here in second place at the Masters (two shots back of Jordan Spieth).
An MRI Thursday morning revealed no damage beyond a high ankle sprain. And off he went right on schedule Thursday afternoon, in the company of Bernhard Langer and Uta Ikeda.
Finau said he had to work out a plan on the practice range before the round to compensate for his tender ankle. “I knew I couldn't put the full weight I wanted to on the foot. My coach and I came up with a plan just to say, hey, the one thing we can't do is hurt it more. So the No. 1 thing for me was my health, and trying to take care of the next few days and not just worry about the now. It definitely hurt at different points of the round.”
So, how surprising is it that he managed to birdie all four par-5s and shoot 68?
“Honestly, I'm not really surprised,” he said. “I like the golf course, and my foot started to feel better the more I played. And, you know, my story's quite crazy.
“I feel like my back's been up against the wall my whole life, so something like this is just another part of the story, I guess.”
You have to know how Finau got to the Masters and then to that bizarre scene Wednesday to truly know the possible impact of that turn of an ankle and twist of Fate.
His father had come to the U.S. at 12, from the island of Tonga. Nothing about his upbringing suggested he would one day raise a PGA Tour champion.
“Golf in the Polynesian culture was just so out of the zone. Nobody plays golf. Everybody thought only girls or old rich white men play that sport,” Tony told ESPN.com last year.
When Tony was 11, Tiger Woods won his first Masters, lapping the field, winning by a dozen shots. Among a million others, a kid in Utah was swept up in that victory. When it came time for the family to choose a sport, golf suddenly was the cool option.
As his father learned the game, he passed on what he knew to his two sons. They practiced at a par 3 facility near their home in Salt Lake City, spending a lot of time on the practice putting and chipping green because it was free.
Once the boys were good enough to compete in tournaments, in order to meet expenses they would hold little fund-raisers in which they hosted luaus and performed Polynesian fire-knife dances.
Tony the fire-knife dancer grew up tall and lean and strong, capable of putting a golf ball into low earth orbit. He leads the PGA Tour in driving distance, and already this year has a pair of runner-up finishes. He is ranked 32nd in the world.
At 28, he had played in multiple U.S. and British Opens, as well as three PGA Championships. But never the one tournament that had fired his imagination back when Tiger Woods ruled the ’97 Masters.
In dramatic fashion, shooting a final-round 64 at the penultimate FedEx Cup playoff event in 2017, Finau cracked the top 30 in points. Besides earning him a place at the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake, it had gained him entrance to his first Masters.
So, yes, the Finau story Wednesday had a particular cruel streak to it. Then Thursday it turned forgiving.
By then he could even look back on the freakish injury and manage a joke:
“It was my first par‑3 contest, my first Masters and I made a hole‑in‑one, so there was a lot that went into (the celebration). I just took off. I noticed my family was behind me, and I turned around. I'm probably not a great DB, you know, doing the backpedaling. So, I won't be doing that the rest of my career.”