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Finau, Johnson Ready for PGA Championship Challenge
By Garrett Johnston, special to Fairways magazine
Tony Finau has delivered an out-of-this-world performance in 2018’s major championships.
With a tie for tenth at The Masters, a fifth at the US Open while in the final group, and a tie for ninth in The Open last month, Finau’s good vibes in the majors continue as he enters the final one of the year Thursday at the PGA Championship in St. Louis.
The Lehi native’s stellar play has garnered the attention of the golfing world.
“I think we’ve all known for a while that Tony has a lot of talent, but this is the first year where we’re consistently seeing him pop up in majors late into the weekend, and that’s a great thing for golf,” renowned golf instructor Michael Breed said Wednesday at Bellerive.
“One of my favorite parts about his game is that with his amazing distance, his misses are never too far off of center,” Breed said, “and that keeps him in a lot of tournaments, especially the majors like we’re seeing right now.”
Hall of Famer Hale Irwin was at Augusta National this year and was amazed by Finau’s resilience to pop his ankle back into place and go on and play in his first Masters less than 24 hours later.
“I could not believe that he was able to recover so quickly and stay composed after that backward trip up,” Irwin said, “I talked with him right after and I told him ‘that wasn’t the first time you put your ankle back into place.”
Davis Park Assistant Professional Zach Johnson is also taking on the game’s best in the PGA Championship.
Johnson’s never been on this big of a stage before and he feels the massive scope of this major championship.
“Words can’t describe it, when I got to the course it was like chills all over the body,” Johnson said.
He arrived on Sunday and played the front nine with Finau and finished off the back nine by himself to learn the course as best he could.
“The comfort level and having fewer people was kind of nice on Monday, but it just has progressively amped up as the week has gone on,” Johnson said. “Hopefully (Thursday) I can find a way to get comfortable and focus on my own game.”
Looking at Finau’s overall body of work in 2018 impresses Irwin, a three-time major champ.
“His game is really running into form,” Irwin said, “he has so many tools in his bag and a great attitude. I wouldn’t be surprised if he puts it all together this week and wins this championship.
“He’s really playing that well.”
Finau’s caddie Greg Bodine agrees that his game is suited for the big stages.
“Majors fit his game, the tougher courses,” Bodine said. “The easier the course is the more players can get away with mediocre shots that do not penalize you as much. He does everything well so he rises to the top the tougher it is. He’s going to hit a lot of drivers (this week).”
With Finau’s lethal distance, hitting a large number of drivers figures to bode well for him at Bellerive.
As far as the golf course, Johnson loves the challenge he sees in longer holes like 4-6 on the front nine as well as 15-17 on the back nine.
To help him with the strategy on the course Johnson has entrusted Taylor Laybourne, an Assistant Pro from Davis Park whom he’s known for about eight years.
Johnson, a Southern Utah University grad has worked at Davis Park for nearly 10 years and he made a run at Q-School from 2006-09.
But this week is his chance to live out his pro dream.
Finau’s coach Boyd Summerhays understands what his star pupil has his eyes on and he sees more confidence in Finau after making last year’s Tour Championship and gathering some of his best results.
“Since his rookie year, the goal has always been to win major championships, he has succeeded in this year’s majors because he has an elite mental game, power and length, high ball flight, and a much-improved short game.”
Finau is paired this week with Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk and Xander Schauffele.
Earlier this season at the U.S Open he played in the final group with Daniel Berger. Finau gave himself a chance late into the back nine and Summerhays enjoyed seeing that determination.
“Tony thrives on the biggest stage and loves the energy of major championship golf,” Summerhays said. “Tony has the skill-sets, confidence, mental toughness and patience to win major championships.”
Johnson also got plenty of support from his good friend Summerhays during that practice round with Finau on Monday. Summerhays remembers teaching “countless junior camps and clinics together” at Davis Park with Zach.
“He is an extremely hard worker and is genuinely a great guy,” Summerhays said of Johnson. “He’s always helping and thinking of others.”
Bellerive is a mere 1,300 miles from Fruit Heights, Johnson already has received plenty of support from friends, family, pupils, and well-wishing customers in this journey to the PGA Championship including 28 text messages after Wednesday’s practice round.
In last month’s PGA Professional Championship in Northern California, Johnson finished top 20 to qualify for the PGA. After his final round on the Monterey Peninsula that day, Johnson said he received over 50 text messages of support from friends, family, and colleagues.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Johnson said. “The support has been great from so many different people.”
Johnson’s win at the 2013 Utah Open was not only a breakthrough for Johnson but also was the first time one of Summerhays’ pupils won a big event.
Summerhays first taught Finau at Davis Park four years ago as well and said “to see Zach play this week (in the PGA) is very rewarding.”
Summerhays actually brought together Johnson and Finau for their practice round on Monday, to ensure Johnson experienced his first few holes on a major stage with a fellow Utahn.
Johnson, the father of one with another on the way, estimates playing around 100 rounds with Summerhays over the years and says he can’t put an exact number on his rounds with Finau, though there have been many.
“My goal is to try and stay focused and get as comfortable as I can and just try to play to my best abilities,” Johnson said. “Just get out of my own way and be relaxed.”
Come Thursday morning, Utah golf fans will have plenty to cheer for.
Garrett Johnson is a freelance sportswriter covering the PGA Tour and a frequent contributor to Fairways. You can follow his travels on Twitter at @JohnstonGarrett