AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The pain, Tony Finau confessed, was excruciating. He knew, glancing down at his dislocated ankle, it had the potential to be bad. Really bad. For those watching the Masters Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, his lower left leg looked like a crumpled soda can. The replay was enough to turn your stomach.
But in addition to the pain, Finau, one of the best athletes on the PGA Tour, felt a twinge of embarrassment as he lay in agony on the turf. After all, what kind of knucklehead dislocates his ankle celebrating a hole-in-one? It wasn't even like it was Finau's first ace. (It was his 12th, he sheepishly confessed later.) Now, presumably, it was going to end his dream of playing in the Masters a day before it even began. You know those listicles that get made listing all the humiliating ways athletes have injured themselves? Finau knew, going forward, he was about to be on every one of them. When the most athletic man on Tour dislocates his ankle celebrating a great shot, it doesn't exactly help bolster the argument that golfers are actually great athletes.
"I have no idea why I just started sprinting," Finau said. "I saw it disappear, it was my first Par 3 Contest, my first Masters. There was a lot that went into that. I just took off. I noticed my family was behind me, turned around. I'm not a great [defensive back], you know, doing the backpedaling. I won't be doing that the rest of my career."
Partially because of that embarrassment, Finau didn't wait for any medical assistance. He really didn't want his kids -- all four of whom were in attendance -- to see him carted off on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance. So, he did what any slightly foolish but stubborn athlete would do. He popped his ankle back into place.
Then on Thursday, he went out and shot one of the best rounds of his career, firing a 4-under 68. He walked the hills of Augusta National gingerly, and when he swung, he couldn't shift his weight to his left side. Somehow he still hit the ball well enough to grab a share of second place, two shots behind leader Jordan Spieth.
It was one of the most inexplicable turnarounds in the history of this tournament, and when it ended, everyone -- including Finau -- was still trying to wrap their brains around how it was possible.
"I look at myself as a pretty mentally tough person, and I think I showed that [Thursday] in my round," Finau said.
The decision to play wasn't without its share of drama or suspense. He spent the entire night trying to ice his leg and keep it elevated. If he slept much, it was restless sleep. He watched the video of what happened, which might have been a mistake. He couldn't get the image out of his head as he tried to sleep.
"I've seen the video replay over in my head millions of times," Finau said.
He climbed out of bed at dawn and went to have an MRI on his ankle at 7 a.m. His doctor told him he had, remarkably, torn a few ligaments (the equivalent of a high ankle sprain) but that was it. Playing on it, if he could withstand the pain, wouldn't cause further damage. That was all he needed to hear. He was going to give it a shot. After a delicate but optimistic session on the range, Finau decided he was good to go. He says he didn't get a shot and didn't take any painkillers.
"I knew I couldn't put the full weight I wanted on my foot," Finau said. "My coach and I just had to come up with a plan. We knew the one thing we couldn't do was hurt it more. ... I feel like my back's been up against the wall my whole life, so something like this is just another part of the story."
When Tiger Woods won the Masters in 1997, there were hundreds of hopeful columns written predicting that the win was going to inspire a generational wave of kids who looked like Woods to take up golf. And for the most part, that prediction hasn't come true. But Finau is living proof that it did have some merit. The moment Woods won the Masters for the first time, becoming the first non-white golfer to do so, Finau was a 7-year-old growing up in Utah, and his eyes were glued to the television. That moment changed the direction of his life. He had no interest in golf before then, even though his father and his younger brother played often.
"Tiger really made it look cool," said Kelepi Finau, Tony's father. "That was the moment he decided not to play football."
When Tony decided he was interested in golf, his parents were happy he had found something that would keep him out of trouble, but there was there wasn't much money for Tony to practice his gifts. Kelepi, who immigrated from Tonga when he was 11 years old, worked as a baggage handler at the airport and had to support a family of nine on a meager salary. They had to get creative. Eventually, his father set up a mattress against the wall in the family garage and put down strips of carpet on the floor. Tony and his brother, Gipper, beat balls against it for hours.
When asked to put into words what golf has meant to his family over the years, Kelepi's eyes started to water, and he was quiet for five seconds before he figured out what he wanted to say. By the time he spoke, there were tears rolling down his face.
"This is literally the greatest country ever," Kelepi said, his voice shaking. "To give my son an opportunity to play such a wonderful game, to let my son have an opportunity to take advantage of something this country have to offer, it's just a great country."
In many respects, what happened Thursday was reminiscent of the mental toughness Woods showed in winning the U.S. Open Championship at Torrey Pines in 2008 with a torn ACL and hairline fracture in his leg. Tony Finau wasn't noticeably limping, but he did have to carefully navigate the sidehill lies and mounds that give Augusta its character. One thing that can't be conveyed on television is just how dramatic the elevation changes are on this course. Yet there Finau was, marching up the hill on No. 1 (where he made bogey) and then marching down the hill on No. 2 (where he made birdie) without much noticeable discomfort. As the round went on, he looked more comfortable with every swing, making crucial par putts on 17 and 18 to finish. Even Woods, who has always been annoyed when people don't think of golfers as real athletes, must have been impressed.
"Even if the pain was overwhelming, I think he still would have made it to the first tee," said Finau's caddie, Greg Bodine. "He's worked his whole life to be in this spot. He wanted to play in the Masters. If he could swing, he was going to play. This was his dream. He's a true athlete. I've seen Tony dunk flat-footed, I've seen him tomahawk, I've seen him windmill. He's a new generation [of golfer] for sure."
Whether Finau hangs around and contends this week almost seems irrelevant now. He turned one of the most embarrassing gaffes in sports into a gritty and memorable performance, a feat that's almost impossible in this viral era. It would be remarkable if is in the mix on Sunday, but there is still a ton of literal hills to climb for him to get there. But after what just transpired, it seems silly to suggest he can't do it.
"To me, it's nothing short of a miracle," Finau said. "My foot was out of place 24 hours ago. And I sit here in second place at the Masters after Round 1. It's nothing short of a miracle for me."