A long road to the Masters from Tony Finau’s ‘humble beginnings’ in Salt Lake City

Rose Park roots remain important to a grounded golfer<br>

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tony Finau at his home in Lehi. Finau is making his debut in the Masters golf tournament next month. Friday, March 16, 2018.

The greens have been skinned, leaving only a sand base on the small, elevated surfaces where Tony Finau learned to chip and putt. Chained baskets serve as targets and numbered signs direct players around the reconfigured disc golf course, although the original nine-hole Jordan River Par 3 layout remains traceable. The landmarks include the mound in the No. 1 fairway that once challenged the PGA Tour’s longest driver to fly his tee shot 90 yards just to get over it.

As he stood on the manicured driving range of Augusta National Golf Club one morning in mid-March, preparing for a practice round amid the Georgia pines, Finau told his caddie about the unpretentious setting in northwest Salt Lake City where he developed his game.

“Quite a bit different than Augusta,” he said.

How did he get from Redwood Road to Magnolia Lane? The short answer is Finau’s chip-in birdie on the last hole of the BMW Championship near Chicago in September gave him a top-30 finish in the PGA Tour’s 2016-17 FedEx Cup standings, worth a Masters invitation. The back story is more complicated, an unlikely journey from his diverse, working-class Rose Park neighborhood to Augusta National as a first-generation golfer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Long time disc golfer Nathan Ottesen of Orem tries out the Roots Disc Golf Course in the Rose Park neighborhood, site of one of the original disc golf courses in Utah before becoming a ball golf course for nearly 20 years. PGA Tour golfer Tony Finau grew up playing the Jordan River Par-3 course that has been converted back to a disc golf venue.

When he drove with his father through the gate in November for their first look at the fabled course, Finau said, “I don’t know if I can describe all the emotion that came with it.”

The moment was equally striking for Kelepi Finau, who once sat in the parking lot of Rose Park Golf Course for three hours, observing golfers come and go in his effort to become remotely familiar with the game that his son Gipper initially wanted to pursue.

“Typical American story, I guess,” he said, having come from Tonga to southern California at age 11.

UTAHNS AT AUGUSTA <br>Tony Finau will become the seventh homegrown Utahn to play in the Masters. Here are the others. <br>George Schneiter Sr., Ogden • Played in 1946, ’47, ‘49 and ’56. Best finish: T13. Lowest round: 70 <br>George Von Elm, Salt Lake City • Played in 1951. Finish: T50. Lowest round: 76 <br>Billy Johnston, Ogden • Played in 1957 and ’64. Best finish: T28. Lowest round: 70 <br>Jay Don Blake, St. George • Played in 1991, ’92 and ’93. Best finish: T27. Lowest round: 68 <br>Clay Ogden, West Point • Played in 2006. Finish: MC. Lowest round: 76 <br>Daniel Summerhays, Farmington • Played in 2017. Finish: T46. Lowest round: 73.

Tony Finau is known as one of the PGA Tour’s nicest people, stemming from what he labels “humble beginnings.” While living in Lehi, he remains loyal to Rose Park. Addressing assemblies at Backman Elementary and other schools, he’ll tell the children, “I’m just like you.”

And now he’s where he always wanted to be. Augusta National is the course Finau longed to play, ever since he was 7 years old and watched Tiger Woods win the 1997 Masters. So here he is at 28, the first PGA Tour member of Tongan/Samoan descent, about to make his Masters debut. Finau has earned nearly $9 million on the tour since October 2014, playing a game that once was foreign to his father, a Delta Air Lines worker who taught him and his younger brother by studying books and videotapes.

Two of Kelepi and the late Ravena Finau’s seven children, Tony and Gipper are 11 months apart — “basically twins,” as Gipper once said. Ravena urged the boys’ father to maximize their ability once they showed interest in golf. Immersed in a Polynesian culture that values football and rugby far above other sports, he somehow believed he could build a pair of PGA Tour players.

“Good thing we didn’t know any better,” Kelepi said with his trademark staccato laughter as punctuation.

Tony made it, giving the Finau Golf Project a remarkable 50 percent success rate. His growth in the game through six years of struggles after he turned pro the week of his West High School graduation fulfilled a potential opportunity the boys’ father tried to illustrate. He would drive them past the field where youth football players were practicing and suggest the brothers’ odds of playing professionally would be much better in golf.

Yet the neighborhood produced the likes of NFL players Haloti Ngata, Stanley Havili and Fui Vakapuna. The chances of the world’s No. 34-ranked golfer emerging from a similar background? Highly unlikely.

“We didn’t know what we were getting into — absolutely, at all,” Tony Finau said recently in the house in the Lehi foothills where he and his wife, Alayna, are raising four children ages 6 and younger. “Our ignorance is what got us where we are. We didn’t know how hard the game is.”

Gipper is the one who once made it look easy to a degree that makes him say, “I wish I had enjoyed it more when I was younger.”

The par-3 venue adjacent to Rose Park Golf Course then was part of the Utah State Parks system (it later was sold to Salt Lake City) and largely was undiscovered. The Finau boys honed their short games before they moved to the 18-hole municipal course next door and became known for the long-driving ability that has made Tony the PGA Tour leader with a 322.7-yard average.

Gipper’s role in this story is twofold. His early success motivated his older brother, who became frustrated trying to beat him and worked harder. “Tony wouldn’t have made it if not for Gipper,” their father said. And Gipper’s failing to come close to making the PGA Tour — he’s still chasing the game on a mini-tour level — simply shows how difficult it is. The outcome of his pursuit is what in reality should have happened in both cases.

Tribune File Photo Tony and Gipper Finau relax on the practice range at Willow Creek Country Club in September 2007.

Gipper, as an amateur having just turned 16 and starting his junior year at West, shot a 63 in Monday qualifying at Wingpointe Golf Course then posted 73-67 to make the 36-hole cut in a Web.com Tour event at Willow Creek Country Club. Tony, playing via a sponsor exemption as the State Amateur champion, shot an opening-round 79.

The brothers turned pro together in 2007 and remained on about the same level for a few years, playing mini-tour events and trying annually to qualify for the PGA Tour. The death of their mother in a November 2011 auto accident affected them personally and professionally. As Tony once said, “One of my main support groups was gone. I had to step back and say, ‘Is this something I need to pursue?’”

He kept going, through the ups and down of the mini-tours and the questions about whether he should have played college golf, having once committed to BYU. Finau, married with two children, earned $44,000 in 2012 for winning two events on the National Pro Golf Tour, which soon folded. He also won the Provo Open, worth $3,000.

Progress came amid more frustration in 2013. He entered five Monday qualifying tournaments for Web.com Tour events, shot 67 each time and never made it into the field. So he played his way onto the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, where he often shared a hotel room and a car with four other golfers, trying to save money.

Finau broke through in December 2013. By then, the PGA Tour’s annual qualifying format was altered, offering access only to the Web.com Tour. After qualifying for the secondary tour, winning a tournament in California and finishing eighth on the money list, he was prepared for the 2014-15 PGA Tour season that started in October.

“I never thought I wasn’t going to make it,” he said.

Tony Finau smiles after a birdie on the 18th hole during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open in January. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

His self-belief was justified, and now Finau expects even more of himself. “He wants to win majors,” his father said. “He wants to be in the top 10. He wants to play in the Ryder Cup.”

And his father, who has remarried and also lives in Lehi, will demand that his son maintains an attitude of thankfulness that stems from Ravena. His world ranking aside, she would have been proud that Golf Digest listed her son in a tie for second (with Adam Scott), behind only Jordan Spieth among the PGA Tour’s top 10 “Good Guys” in 2017.

GOOD GUYS <br>Golf Digest’s 2017 ranking of the best people among PGA Tour players <br>1. Jordan Spieth <br>t-2. Tony Finau <br>t-2. Adam Scott <br>4. Stewart Cink <br>5. Rickie Fowler <br>6. Billy Hurley III <br>7. Geoff Ogilvy <br>8. Brandt Snedeker <br>9. Justin Rose <br>10. Andrew Johnston

“People are so gravitated to him,” said his coach, Boyd Summerhays.

His demeanor among children and other fans “is so like his mom,” Kelepi said.

She’s the reason the Tony Finau Foundation was established during his first PGA Tour season in hopes of developing youth and helping families. That effort is “probably more important to me than the work I do on the golf course,” Finau said. “I know I’ve made an impact on the area I grew up in.”

His involvement in assemblies and financial support such as helping to build a bridge over the Jordan River to provide a safer route to Backman Elementary, his old school, reflect how Finau is “generous, kind and humble,” principal Heather Newell said. “We are lucky to have him as a partner and proud that he is a Backman Lion.”

Finau’s influence extends throughout Utah and beyond, to a Polynesian culture that is embracing golf because of him. “We’re all so proud of him, to say he’s one of us,” said Ilaisa Tuiaki, a BYU assistant football coach.

That’s the backing Finau will take to Augusta National, where his wife and children will wear specially made white coveralls and take turns caddying for him Wednesday in a pre-tournament tradition, the Par 3 Contest. That’s “an experience I thought about a lot, ever since I had kids,” he said.

The event is staged on a course with short holes like the ones he grew up playing, even if the Jordan River Par 3 is a world away.

NAME GAME <br>Tony Finau’s given name is Milton; one of his uncles was named Tony. Gipper Finau’s given name is Kelepi, same as his father’s. Kelepi Finau often is referred to as Gary, a traditional nickname for Kelelpi in the Tongan culture.

WEIR’S 19th MASTERS <br>Sandy resident Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, will compete in the Masters for the 19th consecutive year. Weir, 47, made the cut last weekend in the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, tying for 73rd place and completing 72 holes in a PGA Tour event for the first time since November 2014. Weir made the cut in the Masters in 2014, the only time he has done so since 2010.

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