OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The tournament was on the line and Tony Finau faced a key putt on the final hole. He missed and threw a fit on the green, stomping his feet and, as he recalls, acting like a child.
He was a freshman in high school.
It turned out to be one of the pivotal moments in his life, making him determined never to let losing — that happens a lot in golf — define his character. And it's one reason why his victory in the Northern Trust at Liberty National Golf Club on Monday, after more than five long years without a win, was so popular with his peers.
"My dad was my teacher and my hero, but he didn't say a word to me when I left," Finau said Wednesday as he recalled his adolescent meltdown. "Just from that silence, I understood what that meant. That was not how he raised me. That's not what champions do. That's not how you act on a golf course.
"So that was a teaching moment for me. I was not ever going to do that, ever again. ... I'm going to deal with my losses, take it on the chin and deal with it with class."
There was a lot of practice.
Never mind that Finau has never been outside the top 25 in the Official World Golf Ranking for the past three years and that he was part of the most recent Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. He wasn't winning on the PGA Tour. Since his lone victory in Puerto Rico in 2016, he had eight runner-up finishes, three of them in playoffs.
Chin up. Back to work. No excuses. Always gracious. It has become as much a hallmark as his Tongan-Samoan heritage and the power he generates from that athletic, 6-foot-4 frame.
Small wonder that 1,000 or more text messages poured in Monday night after his victory in the rain-delayed Northern Trust, which vaulted him to the top of the FedEx Cup standings with two events left in the chase for a $15 million prize.
Jon Rahm had a two-shot lead on the back nine and usually needs a little time to cool down from a tough loss. On this day, he headed out to the 18th green to embrace Finau.
"If you don't like Tony Finau, there's something seriously wrong with you," said Rahm, currently No. 1 in the world.
The first text came from Tiger Woods, particularly meaningful because it was Woods winning the 1997 Masters that inspired Finau to play golf. Plus, it meant the 15-time major winner, sidelined since late February by a serious car crash, was watching.
"That was a very special one," Finau said.
The congratulations weren't confined to the golf world, with Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell of the NBA's Utah Jazz among those who sent messages. Finau couldn't sleep Monday night, going through texts and responding to as many as he could.
"Pretty amazing how many people were willing to reach out and just show their support and how happy they were for me," he said.
What makes him so popular?
"I've known Tony for over 20 years. He comes from a great family. He's a wonderful person," four-time major winner Rory McIlroy said. "Obviously he hadn't won in a while, but he never complained. He just sticks his head down, goes about his business. It was a really popular win in the locker room."
The next order of business is the BMW Championship, which starts Thursday at Caves Valley Golf Club, a public course that no one in the 69-man field knows from competition. The Baltimore area has gone six decades since it last hosted a PGA Tour event.
It's a big course, a big walk and a big tournament. The top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings afterward advance to the Tour Championship next week in Atlanta to close out the season, and McIlroy is among those on the bubble at No. 28. Baylor School graduates Harris English and Keith Mitchell are still in the playoffs; English dropped from fourth to eighth in the standings after tying for 31st at the Northern Trust, while Mitchell moved up from 101st to 63rd after tying for eighth.
For the Americans, it's the final week to earn Ryder Cup points. More importantly, Steve Stricker will make six captain's picks after the Tour Championship, and it would help players to be at East Lake Golf Club to make their case.
For Finau, it's about competing without having to answer why he can't win. Such a steady diet of negativity can be a burden, but during his five lean years, Finau never lost his belief.
"I do feel like I'm a very mentally strong person, because we live in an era now where you guys are watching our every move, and I'm going to have critics," he said. "But that's how it is, and that's what I signed up for, and I know that. I expect that.
"And now that I've kind of broken that barrier, my goal moving forward is to continue with this momentum and make a run at this FedEx Cup."
Why was he such a popular winner?
Finau wasn't comfortable talking about himself, though the answer was grounded in the sweet simplicity of treating people the way he would want to be treated.
"If you want to be good at anything, you're going to go through some really hard times. When you go through those, it's OK to be nice, it's OK to be kind," he said. "I never wanted to be one where golf was going to kill me. I've seen it happen to too many people where they let the game literally drive them crazy.
"The game has given me so much already to this point in my career. I have an amazing life because of the game, and I try to portray that in who I am and how I am. I'm a very grateful person, and I try to portray that, and I think that has helped on my journey to just attract people that want to see me succeed."