I remember as a 10-year old, watching our dual prop airplane land on the main island of the Kingdom of Tonga. The plane descended to a grass field with a tiny box building at one end. My father, brother and I got in a car with our host and rode to our destination through villages filled with grass huts and barefoot kids without shirts. It was completely foreign world and home to simple, humble people who were rich in spirit and anxious to dispense love.
What are the chances a golfer of Polynesian descent, like Finau (Tongan/Samoan), making it on the PGA Tour?
Get out your calculator.
Rugby, yes. American football, yes. PGA Tour golf? Will I walk on the moon?
If you’d ever walked the crushed coral roads in Tonga and witnessed where his parents and grandparents grew up, you would appreciate Finau’s accomplishment in a game built for kids whose parents have country club lockers.
It’s getting even tougher for Americans to make the Tour. Of 50 PGA Tour cards handed out last year about 32 went to Europeans, South Africans, Australians, Japanese or other nationalities. Only about 18 went to U.S. citizens. Finau is a U.S. citizen but he also represents a culture that never before had witnessed one of its own play on Tour.
Finau’s chances of making it were miniscule.
That’s why Finau’s story is finding a place among the headlines in the golf world as he’s made a case for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.
He just completed a top-10 finish in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin and tied for 14th at the U.S. Open near Seattle in June. He ranks 39th in FedEx points and is $50,000 short of earning $2 million in his first year. Former KSL sportscaster Jim Nantz, now TV voice of the PGA Tour, constantly raves on air about Finau and his background, including Finau’s Utah connection.
“I feel blessed and very thankful,” Finau told the Utah media as he introduced his Tony Finau Foundation, a charity to benefit underprivileged youth. He wants to give back because he grew up in a household that had very little.
Finau took this week off before heading to the FedEx Championships that begin next week. He stopped in at the Utah Open at Riverside Country Club on Friday and met with reporters to announce a golf tournament slated for Sept. 29-30 at Thanksgiving Point to benefit his foundation.
During the third round of his second major at Whistling Straits, for a brief moment, Finau led the event, eventually won by Jason Day. A few shots here or there and Finau could have finished in the top five.
Afterward, Day came up to Finau and encouraged him. “Hey, it took me eight years to win a major,” said Day. “Keep with it, you’ve got the game.”
Finau said at both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, he remembers standing on a tee box, fairway or green and feeling the rush of the moment, that he was among the best golfers on the planet. And competing.
What he learned in those two majors is that the long-hitting game he honed growing up in Utah has given him the tools to take on courses designed to host major championships. In both the U.S. Open and PGA, he finished ahead of a bunch of the game’s greats, including Dustin Johnson, another long hitter who had leads in both events.
Finau is 6-foot-4 and wears a size 14 shoe. He has huge, soft hands and a golf swing that effortlessly winds up, coils and whips a golf club toward a ball with uncanny speed and power.
Earlier this week, Victory Ranch head professional Greg Stephens told me he’d played a few holes with Finau at the private layout near Kamas. On a regular basis, Tony and his younger brother Gipper hit drives 400 yards.
Finau has learned to dial his power back. Still, he ranks No. 8 on tour in driving distance at 308.9 yards. “I’ve learned to harness it, to control my distances because out there you have to hit fairways to have a chance to win,” he said.
I asked him what Tiger Woods would pay to drive the ball as long as he does and hit fairways these days.
He smiled and complimented Tiger, who missed cuts at the U.S. Open and PGA but climbed to the lead at the Wyndam Friday at 11-under par.
But think about it.
Yes, with Tony Finau’s roots, his ascent has been remarkable in 2015.
And he’s just getting started.