But things went from winsome to gruesome quickly, as Finau’s left foot landed off-balance and the ankle bent awkwardly while he slid to the turf. The distorted ankle was plain to see, and the view became more cringe-worthy as cameras captured Finau reaching down with his left hand and popping the ankle back into place.
Or as Finau, 28, said Thursday evening, looking back on the injury and the video of it that he had already watched several times: “I saw where it was and I knew where it needed to be. I popped it back in and tried to be as smooth as I could be.”
But on Wednesday evening Finau, who was playing in his first Masters, left the golf course to be examined by doctors. Withdrawing from the tournament seemed a likely outcome.
Credit Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
“It was pretty devastating,” his father, Kelepi Finau, said Thursday as he stood near the Augusta National clubhouse. “Tony had waited a long time to play in the Masters. It had been almost a lifelong dream, and now we were getting ready to pack up without him playing.”
But a magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed that the only serious damage was torn ligaments. It was, Finau said, a sprained ankle, albeit a bad one.
“Tony called me about 11 p.m. last night and said, ‘Hey, Dad, I think I’m going to play tomorrow,’” Finau’s father said.
After a hefty amount of athletic tape was wrapped around Finau’s ankle, he went to Augusta National and headed to the practice range early.
“I knew I’d have to compensate for the injury and couldn’t put all my weight on the left foot in my swing,” Finau said. “With my caddie, we came up with a plan that let me swing without making it worse — because I want to play four rounds here.”
Credit David J. Phillip/Associated Press
Finau bogeyed the first hole on Thursday — a typical occurrence for Masters rookies, even those with two healthy ankles. And then he settled down.
“I think my injury masked a little of the pressure,” Finau said later, “because I had to worry about my foot. I had other things on my mind.”
After nine holes, the 6-foot-4 Finau, who is one of the longest hitters on the PGA Tour, was three under par. When he birdied the par-5 14th hole, he was in the lead at four under. He wobbled — sometimes literally — on the final holes but finished with an impressive up-and-down par on the 18th hole after he sprayed his approach shot into the crowd adjacent to the green.
A few minutes later, Kelepi Finau, who came to the United States in the mid-1960s from the island of Tonga, was in tears trying to summarize the turn of events. He talked about how his son, who was born and raised in Utah, had been inspired to give up football and basketball to concentrate on golf when he watched Woods’s inaugural Masters victory in 1997.
“Tiger made golf look cool,” Kelepi Finau said. “And to think Tony’s now been given this opportunity to play here is just wonderful.”
Kelepi Finau wiped his eyes.
“This is a holy place in the game of golf,” he said. “You have to have faith and feel the spirit of the grounds. They let my kid play today.”