Tony Finau has a problem, and that problem is not that he doesn’t win enough (although that also is a problem). Finau’s primary problem, in fact, is that he’s too consistent in final rounds. That’s right. He constantly performs well but not quite well enough to grab his first full-field win on the PGA Tour.
Finau is plagued by the burden of consistency.
Over the weekend, Finau shot a 4-under 68 in the final round of The American Express to finish in solo fourth, which is the — this is a real number — 35th (!) time since the start of the 2016-17 season that he’s finished in the top 10 of an event without notching a single win. This is more than double the second-most (Kevin Streelman, Tommy Fleetwood and Ben An with 16).
In that same span of time, Finau has entered the final round of 18 events in fifth place or better. He has gained strokes on the field average in 15 of those (including Sunday). According to Data Golf, he was expected to win three times based on his pre-round position going into those 18 final rounds, and twice based on how he played in the final round itself. He won none of them.
Here’s the rub, though. In 16 of those rounds, Finau shot between 68-72. Good play but nothing great. He gained more than 4.0 strokes just one time and never lost more than 2.0. His average score was 70.3, which, again, is good but not special. He’s been close a lot but never crowned.
Golf is the rare sport where consistency is actually not rewarded. You want your lows to be low if it means your highs are really high. Consider the number of different ways you can reach a 70.3 scoring average in the final round of events in which you enter in the top five. If half of those are low 60s and half are high 70s, then you probably just won a handful of golf tournaments. If they’re all between 68-72 like Finau, you probably did not win any at all.
“Usually, when I walk off the 72nd hole, I have a pretty good sense of how long it’s going to sting,” Finau said of his play on Sunday. “I’m pretty encouraged right now. I’ve been working on some things in my golf swing, and I was able to hit a lot of good shots this week and so I know I’m heading in the right direction.
“I’ve said before, I feel like I’ve got to get a little bit better to win again … So it’s an encouraging week on a lot of levels. So another crack at Torrey Pines next week, a place I’ve had a lot of success.”
This is not untrue. But the problem is that good is not good enough, or it has not been in Finau’s case (he’s also been unlucky, according to the numbers). The perception here is that he’s always in it but never closes. He would almost be better off, from a perception standpoint, if he played worse throughout the first three rounds and didn’t enter the last round so close to so many leads.
So how do you increase your volatility in the final rounds and create more chances for winning? Well, you take more chances. This is what the numbers say about other players. When your best Sunday scores are spectacular and your worst ones are equally spectacular the other way, it means you’re letting it ride. Finau, for all he’s accomplished, has not necessarily done that.
It’s not an exact comparison, but consider Justin Thomas. In the same span of time, J.T. has entered the final round in the top five of 28 events. His scoring average is only 1.2 strokes better than Finau’s (and his strokes-gained number is only 0.8 strokes better on average), but his variance is much wider.
J.T. has gained at least 4.0 strokes eight times (again, Finau has done this just once) and won five of those events. He’s also lost two or more strokes to the field twice (Finau has never lost this many), and obviously lost both of those events. The point is that the scoring dispersion here is wider — likely because J.T. takes more chances — which leads to more wins, but also bigger losses.
Rory McIlroy may be an even better test case. His 69.9 final round average when entering in the top five over the last five years is very similar to Finau’s, and his 1.5 strokes gained in final rounds is the exact same as Finau’s 1.5. However, four of those final rounds were at 4.0 strokes gained or better (he won them all), and three were 2.0 or worse (he lost them both badly). This is the path to winning more often.
So as strange as it sounds, Finau needs to become more inconsistent (at least in Round 4) to start winning more tournaments. This is a difficult concept to preach to an athlete, but it’s one that will help him shed the label he’s built up over the last few years of someone who is quite good but not quite good enough.