Augusta, Ga. – Tony Finau grew up in a poor section of Salt Lake City. When he wasn't getting into fistfights with his brother, they went into the family garage and pounded old golf balls into a mattress.
The slick grips on his discount clubs forced Finau to develop a pure grip. The strips of carpet on the concrete floor forced him to develop a sweeping swing. These days, when he struggles, he recalls the sound of the ball bouncing off the mattress for inspiration.
The Finaus were poor enough that they couldn't afford cable television, but they didn't need cable to watch Tiger Woods become the first person of color to win the Masters, in his historic 1997 victory. On Sunday, Finau, who is of Tongan and Samoan descent, will play in the last group at the Masters with Woods and reigning British Open champion Francesco Molinari. While trying to win his first major championship, Finau will try to defeat the man who made him want to play golf, and who offered lessons to young golfers from afar.
"Tiger taught us how to compete," Finau said. "Meaning, you shouldn't cheer anybody. Tiger, we're the aftermath, if you will, of the Tiger effect. The way he dominated and watching him growing up, it was like he was scared of nobody. So I think a lot of us try to be like him. …
"He's playing against guys he kind of bred. We were watching him as teenagers through high school and watching him dominate, and I think all of us relish now having a chance to compete against him."
Because of ominous forecasts for Sunday afternoon, the Masters decided to start play at 6:30 a.m. Central time, with the leaders beginning at 8:20. The players will go out in threesomes off the first and 10th tees in the hopes of finishing the tournament, and a possible playoff, before severe weather arrives.
Molinari leads at 13 under. Finau is tied with Woods for second at 11 under. Finau tied a Masters record by shooting a 30 on the front nine, and was one of three players to shoot a 64 on Saturday. From 1934 through 2018, there were two 64s shot in the third round.
"I've dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship," Finau said of Woods.
Finau is an unusual Sunday contender. He has only one PGA Tour victory. He turned pro at 17 and played on the Gateway Tour, the Hooters Tour, the National Pro Tour and the Canadian tour.
He and his brother, Gipper, gained their first national exposure by competing on "The Big Break," Golf Channel's "Survivor"-type television show. Tony finished second.
As a young pro, Finau played a massive slice, and last year at the Masters he made a hole-in-one in the par-3 tournament on Wednesday, then dislocated his ankle while celebrating.
He played in the Masters despite the injury and finished tied for 10th, on his way to top-10 finishes in three majors. This week he played in the par-3 tournament again, this time wearing a large boot Nike made for him as a joke.
"I felt like if you can't laugh at yourself in something like that, then I think you're doing it all wrong," he said. "I thought it was quite funny after the fact, celebrating a hole-in-one and ruining my ankle for a few months."
The other four times Woods finished the third round at the Masters at 11 under or better, he won the tournament. He shot a no-sweat 67. A day after missing numerous short putts, Woods looked automatic inside 10 feet.
Can he win his first major since 2008 and his first Masters since 2005? "That was the plan, and here I am," he said.
Finau won't even need cable to watch Tiger play in the Masters on Sunday. He will walk 18 with his idol, trying to prove he isn't intimidated by the player who taught him never to be intimidated. If Finau stumbles, he can recall the sound of old golf balls hitting a mattress, and strips of carpet on a concrete floor.