Wednesday 24 June 2015 | Published in Regional
Growing up in Salt Lake City of Tongan and American Samoan descent, Finau was expected to excel at football, which is nearly a religion for most Polynesian boys growing up in the US.
Yet from a very early age, Finau, and his younger brother, Gipper, were drawn to golf.
And this weekend, in his first season on the PGA Tour and after his first trip to a major tournament, Finau finished in the top 15 – way ahead of numerous names that are legendary in the game.
Finau finished Sunday’s round with a 1-over-par 71 for a four-day total of 282, and tied for 14th place – seven shots behind champion Jordan Spieth– at Chambers Bay Golf Course near Seattle.
“It’s rare that my brother and I even play golf,” said Finau, whose cousins Haloti Ngata and Sione Pouha play in the National Football League.
“Football is in our genes. That’s what our people do.”
When Finau opened his 2014-15 PGA Tour season last year in the Frys.com Open at the Silverado Resort in Napa, California, he became the first player of Tongan or American Samoan descent to play regularly on the PGA Tour.
Michael Campbell, the 2005 US Open champion, and Phil Tataurangi, also a former tour winner, are both New Zealand Maori Polynesians. Fiji’s Vijay Singh who grew up in Fiji, can claim to be the most famous golfer from the Pacific, but he is of Indian descent.
“I guess there is a little bit of pride that goes with being the first Tongan-Samoan to hold a PGA Tour card,” Tony said on his debut into golf’s big league.
Tony, a 25-year-old husband and father of two small children, didn’t take the traditional path to the tour like so many of his American peers.
In 2007, he turned pro at 17 to compete for the $2 million first prize at the Ultimate Game, an individual match-play competition held in Las Vegas.
He was headed to university on a full golf scholarship until a private sponsor offered to provide the $50,000 initiation fee for him and his brother Gipper to compete in the tournament.
Tony made the 12-man finals, and after paying back the entry fee, he took $100,000 to launch his career as an aspiring tour pro.
Gipper, who is just 11 months younger than Tony, is currently entered in the first stage of Web.com Tour Qualifying school.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would have turned pro at 17,” Tony said. “At the time, I had been playing golf for only nine years.”
Finau said that many people questioned his choice at the time, because they didn’t fully understand all the variables that went into his decision.
“I had a chance to win $2 million, a week after high school graduation, and if I turned pro, the sponsor was going to financially support me,” Tony said. “And Lee Trevino, who was a commentator at the event, helped me land a three-year deal with Callaway at a time when I was unproven.
“On the flip side, I didn’t have really much of a social life in high school – but I’m not really a party-goer, so college wasn’t super appealing to me at the time.”
Finau’s good fortune was just beginning. A couple of years later during a mini-tour event in Arizona, he and Gipper were spotted by a producer from The Big Break who asked them to audition for the reality television show on the Golf Channel.
The brothers were an instant hit. “It was huge marketing us as brothers chasing after a dream to play the PGA Tour,” said Tony, who finished second in the competition. “It was great exposure that kind of sprung our careers forward.”
Since those first glimpses of notoriety, the brothers have spent most of the last seven years on golf mini-tours from California to the Carolinas.
“It was tough and sometimes you had to find sponsors who would take a percentage of your winnings,” Tony said. “There are a lot of variables to playing mini-tour golf because of the finances. If you don’t play well, you’re often losing a lot of your own money.
“It doesn’t make sense sometimes financially to do it but you have to do something to stay competitively sharp.”
Tony never considered giving up on his dream.
“There was never anything I doubted,” he said. “I knew I was still pretty young going through the mini-tours. I had a lot of success winning some events out there, which allowed me to stay financially afloat.
“I don’t think that I would be the person or the player that I am without the experiences that I have had.”
After playing PGA Tour Canada in 2013, Tony broke through at the Web.com Tour Q-School with a tie for third to earn full status for the first time on the developmental tour.
He missed three out of his first four cuts but he began to find good form in the spring with a tie for fourth at the Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, North Carolina.
By the summer, he was working with Boyd Summerhays, a former tour player-turned-instructor, who has helped the long-hitting (310.3 yard average) Finau become more effective with his favourite shot, a fade.
In August, Finau won the Stonebrae Classic in Hayward, California, with a final-round 66 for a 22-under total, the second-lowest 72-hole score in Web.com Tour history.
That victory helped him secure his PGA Tour card.
“A lot of things have come around this year for me,” Finau said. “My short game has improved, and I have started to understand my swing a little bit more.
“I have also used my experience on the mini-tours of grinding out, and I was able to apply that when I was in contention.”
“A realistic goal for me this year is to keep my card,” he said. “But more importantly is getting comfortable with the surroundings and atmosphere of the regular tour.
“I want to see how my game holds up under this bigger spotlight. If I can do those things this year, I think I can have a successful career going forward.”