Meet golf’s next superstar, whose journey to professional golf followed an unusual route
by Chris Cox, PGA TOUR
It is a relic of a bygone PGA TOUR era, a cozy 6,180-meter golf course called Brown Deer Park on the north side of Milwaukee. For the last 16 editions of the Greater Milwaukee Open’s 42-year run, the tournament was held at Brown Deer, but when Billy Andrade and other PGA TOUR professionals gathered around the tee Thursday afternoon back in 2007, or saw each other in the parking lot that July weekend, they were captivated by another relic:
An aspiring tour professional who was prepared to take the circuitous route, who wouldn’t ever have things handed to him, who was patiently willing to play any minitour until that break arrived. Tony Finau was his name and the respect he earned as a teenager has blossomed into deep admiration.
“I’m a huge fan,” said Andrade.
The fact is, we all should be. The Finau story is that inspiring, that commendable, that much of a throwback to pro golf of yesteryears when it was understood that you scratched out a living on the minitours, biding your time till opportunity arrived, usually in your mid-to-late 20s. Times, of course, have changed, with a plethora of explanations – superior junior golf programs, ultra-competitive collegiate golf, a deeper pool of young, elite talent – offered up as to why it is that kids are becoming PGA TOUR forces before they need to shave.
Andrade accepts that the landscape has been altered and applauds the explosive youngsters. But he stands his ground on Finau, having been an eyewitness to that U.S. Bank Championship more than 12 years ago when the 17-year-old from Salt Lake City was ushered into the tournament with a healthy layer of hype.
“We had heard about this kid who Monday qualified (Finau had fired a blistering 64 at Fire Ridge GC in Grafton, Wisconsin, to take medalist honors), a tall, lanky, skinny kid who hit it a mile. I had never seen a player hit it over the net on the range, while it was still rising.”
Push to the side, for now, the foundation that had already been poured in the Finau legend and the flavor that also arrived that week at Brown Deer Park, and cut to the parking lot scene that helps you digest the essence of this talented kid of Samoan and Tongan heritage. Finau said he crossed paths with Andrade, then 43 and in his 20th year on the PGA TOUR, who encouraged him to stay patient and stick to his game.
“That was amazing to me, for him to speak with me,” said Finau. “That whole week was incredible, so cool. To be 17 and see what it took to play golf on the PGA TOUR. It was great for me.”
Rounds of 75-65 enabled Finau to make the cut, but he followed with 76-72 to finish tied for last and earn U.S. $7,960. “But I wasn’t discouraged, I was enthusiastic for my future,” he said.
As for Andrade, he was certainly impressed, but so, too, was he a realist.
“That day when we left the parking lot, I bet you every PGA TOUR pro there thought the same thing I was thinking,” said Andrade. Which was: “God, I hope he hangs in there because he’s an easy guy to root for, but the truth is, his chances might be slim to none.”
Finau had rejected collegiate scholarships to turn pro right out of high school, “so he didn’t have that route,” said Andrade. “And he didn’t have status anywhere and there weren’t some of the options that are available now.”
What Finau had ahead of him were six more years and tens of thousands of minitour miles – the ultimate learning curve – that leaves veterans like Andrade in awe.
“Usually, there’s a script that is followed. Players are very good juniors, then in college and the best amateur tournaments,” said Andrade. “But every decade there are a couple of guys who take a different path and make it; Tony Finau definitely is at the top of that list.
“He’s truly a remarkable story, the All-America story.”
When the U.S. and International teams gather at Royal Melbourne in Australia for the next edition of the Presidents Cup, the star power will run the gamut from incomparable (Tiger Woods) to Grade-A Elite (Adam Scott, Jason Day, Justin Thomas, Dustin Johnson) to unheralded (Corey Conners, Cameron Smith). Each of the 24 players can boast of years of travel and recite tournament experiences you’ve perhaps never heard of.
Likely, Finau’s resume stands alone for its uniqueness and perseverance, which is why it has the respect of veteran pros.
“I’m humbled to hear players speak to my background,” said Finau. “My upbringing is quite different.”
More than his humble roots as one of seven children raised in a family that had meager financial resources, and beyond the stories of hitting golf balls in his garage during long, cold, snowy winters, there are the competitive opportunities Finau took on during his off-the-beaten-track to the PGA TOUR.
Some, like the money games he and his brother Gipper got involved in on trips to Las Vegas, were played far from the spotlight.
But others, like “The Ultimate Game” early in 2007, enhance the Finau legend. Supporters put up the $50,000 entry fee and it paid off when Finau beat former major league pitcher Rick Rhoden, 3 and 1, to earn a spot in the final 12. The night he beat Rhoden, Finau didn’t enjoy the Las Vegas experience; he was 17 and had to go back for high school graduation. He returned to Vegas to shoot 69-72 and finish eighth (Scott Piercy won the $2 million jackpot).
Another big prize, one which included $50,000 in prizes plus an exemption into a PGA TOUR tournament, eluded Finau late in 2009 when he squandered a lead and lost in the finals of The Golf Channel’s “Big Break.”
“The Ultimate Game” had introduced Finau to the legendary Lee Trevino, who lobbied Callaway to offer the kid an equipment deal. “The Big Break” had introduced him to a wider golf audience. And in between, there had been a list of stories like the one from that 2007 U.S. Bank Championship practice round, a quiet Tuesday when Bernhard Langer was out playing by himself.
“He was on the green at the 16th hole,” said Andrade, “a 369-yard downhill hole where you hit a 3- or 4-iron off the tee, laying up in front of a creek, then a 9-iron or wedge. Bernhard was on the green by himself, putting to different locations, when a gentleman said, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Langer, but my son is on the tee; would you mind if he hit?’”
Langer said he could, then heard a ferocious whack, and when the ball landed on the green, the quiet and reserved German looked at Kelepi Finau – the father who had emigrated to America at 11 with his family from Tonga and who had bought his son’s first set of clubs for 75 cents at a Salvation Army – shook his head, and smiled.
“We were all just mesmerized,” said Andrade. “With his length, yes. But also, how he handled himself. He was just 17, but he had a nice way about him. He had his family with him and before I left, I told him, ‘Good luck, keep it going, you’ve got a lot of talent.’ And he did. But he was so raw.”
“I was raw. I was also star-struck when I met Trevino. It was surreal,” he said. “But I’ve never had any issues with my length, but I knew what I had to do. I was getting killed by guys who hit it 80 yards shorter. Precision, I knew, was better.”
From 2007, when he turned pro, to late in 2013, when finally he made it through the PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament to earn status on the Korn Ferry Tour, Finau learned to reign in his game on a series of minitours. Adams, Dakota, Golden Gate, Moonlight, E Golf . . . “you name it, I played them all,” he said. “I was quite the travelin’ man.”
But since 2014, all his travels have been made in one direction. Up.
Finishing seventh on the KFT money list in 2014, Finau graduated to the PGA TOUR and in 2015 was rock-solid as a rookie, finishing 43rd in the FedExCup standings. The trajectory has been consistent and brilliant: Ranked 146th in the Official World Golf Rankings at the end of 2014, Finau finished the subsequent years 87th, 88th, 40th, and ninth, and he presently sits 15th.
To focus on his one PGA TOUR win is to ignore the wider lens, where Finau is seen as a dynamic talent who is virtually glued to leaderboards week in and week out. Since 2015, Finau in 145 PGA TOUR tournaments has recorded a whopping 33 top 10s, or about 23 percent of his starts.
Along the way, thanks to fan club members such as Andrade, what is trumpeted is Finau’s grit and diligence. “No one gets to the PGA TOUR without earning it,” said Finau, now 30.
“But when people learn about me and my story and they think it’s cool, that makes me feel good. I’m very proud to be able to be an example that this game has so much to offer.”