Tony Finau looks for Tour breakout at PGA Championship

MOSEL, Wis. – As Tony Finau soared into contention at the 97th PGA Championship, he kept hearing the familiar chant of “GMO.”

That was the old nickname for the Greater Milwaukee Open, the former PGA Tour stop where Finau made his Tour debut on a sponsor exemption in 2007.

“That’s pretty cool to have kind of that fan base still following me around,” Finau said.

Back then, Finau was a 17-year-old phenom who could hit the ball a country mile. But more than seven years elapsed before Finau, 25, earned his Tour card. Whether counted in dog years or not, that’s a long time, and Finau spent much of it chasing his dream playing mini tours, state opens and even a season of “The Big Break.”

“Thinking back, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have thought it would take this long, but I’m glad that it did,” he said. “I feel my game is very polished.”

In his rookie season, Finau is showing he belongs. He fired a 3-under 69 Saturday at Whistling Straits for a 54-hole total of 10-under 206, good enough for a share of sixth place entering the final round of the PGA. He already has recorded 14 top-25 finishes, including eight of his last 10 starts.

Finau capped off a 6-under 66 early Saturday morning to complete the second round and improved to 12 under through 12 holes in the third round when his putter began misbehaving. His 21-foot birdie putt at the 13th came up woefully short and the 3-putt was his first bogey of the day. He bounced back with a birdie one hole later, spinning a sand wedge from 106 yards to 4 feet left of the hole. But his 5-foot birdie putt at the 16th slid by on the right and he pulled his par putt at 18 from the same length and it lipped out.

“If I just made that putt on 18,” he said, “I’d feel really good about (my day).”

So what turned Finau from Q-School flameout to PGA Championship contender? He attributes it to learning to harness his power and improving his putting from inside 10 feet.

“It was the hardest thing for me because I always felt that my length was my advantage,” he said. “I had to learn how to use my length. There are golf courses where I can use my length and others where I don’t even need it. I have a lot of different gears. I can hit a 300-yard driver with a little fade and I can hit a high-draw driver 375 yards. When I need it, it’s there. “

And he tinkered with putting cross-handed in 2013, shortly before PGA Tour Canada Q-School. Now he says he’ll never go back to a conventional putting grip.

“It helps square me up on short putts,” he said. “Inside 10 feet is the difference between top guys and me.”

That could be the difference for Finau, who will begin the final round five shots behind Jason Day. He is confident he can still be a factor if he can take advantage of his prodigious length and soft hands around the green.

“I felt like I was pretty patient,” Finau said, “and to be in this position, I feel really confident, really good about my game.”

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