Getty Images

'The American dream': Finau's Ryder Cup inclusion immeasurable

By Ryan LavnerSeptember 11, 2018, 12:19 pm

NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Overshadowed by all of the résumé comparisons and back-room politics is the best story of this Ryder Cup:

Tony Finau, the most improbable U.S. team member ever.

Improbable not because of his record – with 11 top-10s and major cameos this year, he is certainly deserving of the final pick on an already-stacked squad.

No, Finau’s inclusion is improbable because of his all-American backstory, because he had no business growing up to become one of the dozen best U.S. players. He’s the son of a Tongan immigrant. The precocious talent who learned the game from a novice. The tenacious product of Rose Park, the hardscrabble neighborhood just outside Salt Lake City. That area has produced NFL and NBA stars, but world-class golfers, with just a par-3 course and rundown muni to offer? Never.

“I’m still in shock,” says Finau’s father, Kelepi. “Seriously, what are the chances? What are the odds?”

One in a million? Worse?

And yet Finau, 28, has reached the pinnacle of his sport – a major contender, a top-20 world ranking and now a spot on Jim Furyk’s U.S. team.

“It’s very fulfilling,” Finau says, “and you feel a sense of accomplishment just from the sacrifices that were made by others on my behalf and the sacrifices I’ve made for my career. It’s hard not to look back at where I came from and the humble beginnings I grew up in. To be a member of the Ryder Cup team, a dream of mine, is really humbling and satisfying.” 

This circuitous journey is so ridiculous, so inconceivable that Kelepi started to choke up on the other end of the phone. After all, he grew up in Tonga, a tiny island in the South Pacific, where he’d mow lawns and play guitar in Polynesian shows for a little extra cash. In his early 20s he moved to Utah to work graveyard shifts at the Delta facility for $35,000 a year, barely enough to support his and his late wife Ravena’s seven children. Raising that brood in a rough neighborhood, he aimed only to steer them away from the trouble that lurked just down the street. He accomplished that, only to suffer an unimaginable loss – Ravena died in a car accident in 2011 – that shook the entire family to the core. Tony persevered, as he always has, and now is a rising star for whom money likely will never be an issue.

That’s why, sometimes, Kelepi won’t even venture out onto the course to watch Tony play. He’s too overwhelmed with joy. With gratitude. He’ll instead linger in the parking lot, watching on his phone, pinching himself.

“It takes me back,” he says, “and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that you can make it from there to here. It doesn’t make sense why he’s on Tour. I just can’t believe that 10 to 15 years ago, we were home together, practicing.”

That practice was unconventional, of course. Back then, Kelepi had never heard of golf, but one of his young sons, Gipper, showed an interest after watching on TV, and that got Tony hooked, too. Unable to afford lessons for the boys, Kelepi devoured Jack Nicklaus’ “Golf My Way” at the library. He bought a 6-iron, a putter and a little red bag for $2.25 at the Salvation Army. Instead of spending $7.50 a day for a bucket of balls, he built a makeshift driving range in the garage of the family’s three-bedroom duplex.

Kelepi’s golf knowledge may have been limited, but he knew enough to spray-paint dots on a mattress and position it behind a net – that way they could work on their trajectory and train their ears to the crispness of the contact. Using a camcorder he bought at a garage sale, Kelepi reviewed their swings and compared them to what he’d seen on videos and in books.

Any golf parent knows that playing the junior circuit is an expensive endeavor, but Tony’s talent was undeniable. So the family made sacrifices. On the road, Ravena didn’t eat for three days while Tony scarfed down 79-cent McDonald’s hamburgers. He and his mom once slept in their car at a tournament, because they couldn’t afford a hotel room.

Still, Tony blossomed into one of the elite players in his class, a Junior Worlds champion at age 12 and a two-time Junior Ryder Cupper by the time he finished high school. He turned pro, because he was naïve and his family needed the money, and then bounced around for years on the mini-tours.

It wasn’t until he linked up with swing coach Boyd Summerhays that he finally tapped into his immense potential. Capable of pounding 400-yard drives, Finau harnessed all of that awesome power and became more reliable off the tee, then vastly improved his wedge play and putting. Though the 2016 Puerto Rico Open remains his only Tour victory, Finau this year contended in three majors, tied a PGA record with 10 birdies in a round (fortuitously, while paired with Furyk) and posted three consecutive top-10s to start the playoffs. Heading into next week’s Tour Championship, he sits third in the FedExCup standings, a win away from the $10 million windfall – a fortune that his family never could have imagined 15 years ago.

In Paris, Tony will once again be able to prove himself on a world stage, but for Kelepi, seeing his son in a U.S. team uniform, the moment will be more personal.

“For me, it’s almost like we can finally be accepted as an American,” he says. “That’s how huge it is. It solidifies that we can establish ourselves as true Americans that fit the principles of what this great country stands for.

“Because anyone in the whole world can come to this country and be successful. It just takes gratitude and hard work. Tony epitomizes the American dream.” 

When the Ryder Cup announcement was made Monday night, Finau wasn’t seated next to Furyk in a conference room of the downtown Philadelphia Marriott. He had already sprinted to the airport, to fly back home to Utah, for the start of the fourth annual Tony Finau Foundation Luau & Golf Classic.

Sensing a need in his community, he started the foundation to help underprivileged kids around Salt Lake City. They’ve already raised nearly $1 million. “He knows what it’s like there,” Kelepi says. “It’s a personal program for Tony, because he wants to see more kids turning their lives around like he did.”

The foundation’s mission is to provide a children’s learning center and mentoring program for kids when they’re most impressionable, from kindergarten to second grade. In the future, Finau’s foundation also hopes to take over the Jordan River Par-3 – where Tony and Gipper spent hundreds of hours honing their games – and teach youngsters the fundamentals. On Saturday mornings in the summer, they’d block off tee times so the beginners could play with some of the local businessmen, establishing relationships.

When speaking to his father, Tony still grows emotional when talking about some of his best friends from the neighborhood, the struggles that they’re enduring, the regrets they harbor about how their lives have turned out.

“It pushes him to get even more involved, because you name it, from the worst to whatever the best is, it’s all in that neighborhood,” Kelepi says. “Tony’s is a typical NBA story, but what the heck is he doing playing golf? You won’t find any other pro golfers from there – I can guarantee it.”

Now a hero at home, the 2018 Ryder Cup is lasting proof that Tony Finau has made it.

He hopes to be the first of many.

Getty Images

Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon

By Golf Channel DigitalSeptember 20, 2018, 2:00 am


Some stories stick with you longer than others. First time you get to do a feature. First time you meet a sports legend (it was Allen Iverson for me). Seeing a championship isn’t bad, either. Been there, done that. Lawnmower museum on the east coast of England, tsunami survivors in California, re-connecting Al Geiberger with his lost 59 tape, all good, but no story or environment has stuck with me like going to Attica Correctional Facility in 2013 to tell the story of Valentino Dixon.

For starters, I’d never been searched before setting up for an interview. Not just me, everyone - all three cameramen, Jimmy Roberts, the guy escorting us in who worked there. Everyone. Attica trusts no one. Can’t blame them after 1971, when inmates protesting living conditions took members of the prison staff hostage. The ensuing police response left 29 inmates and 10 hostages dead.

Attica has a "shank wall," a collection of homemade weapons seized from inmates and displayed like baseball cards in a plastic case on the wall outside the guards' lunchroom. Prison interior decorating at its finest. Nice touch.

We went to do a story on an inmate who was introduced to the world in a Golf Digest article by Max Adler in 2012. "The golf artist who had never stepped foot on a golf course - Valentino Dixon.: He was in for murder. Second degree. You know, your standard golf story.

Wrongfully imprisoned man freed after nearly three decades

Dixon, a former aspiring artist before getting caught up in the Buffalo drug-dealing scene, started sketching photos from Golf Digest for the warden. I’ve never been to prison, but from what I have gathered from watching The Shawshank Redemption some 8,000 times, getting in the warden’s good graces is a smart habit to pick up if you’re doing serious time.

Dixon's art was insanely good. Even more so because he did it all with colored pencils. No paintbrushes allowed (see shank wall above). Jimmy, the crew and I stopped for a good 10-15 minutes to marvel at his creations before continuing with the interview.

We spent a solid 40 minutes talking to the man who supposedly killed a man 20-something years prior. In that time, he pleaded his innocence to us over and over again. He spoke like a man who had rehearsed every angle of his story over and over and over again. I give him credit - there were no holes in his story. I consider myself a pretty good judge of character, and he didn’t look like a killer, didn’t sound like one. either. But what did I know? I’d never met one - that I know of. And if you were stuck in prison for 20-plus years and all of a sudden had a camera in front of you and a platform to plead your innocence, wouldn’t you do your best to try to get out of there?

Since the guards wouldn’t allow any food, the crew and I stopped at the first deli we saw on the ride back into Buffalo. After we were done eating, we all looked at each other, knowing what we all were thinking: "Do you think he did it?”

Didn’t matter what we thought, we were just there to tell the story. On Wednesday, however, people whose opinions mattered made a decision and allowed someone who loves the game of golf, but has never stepped foot on a golf course, to do just that if he so chooses. That's a story that will stick with him for the rest of his life.

Getty Images

Wrongfully convicted inmate who turned to golf artistry freed

By Associated PressSeptember 20, 2018, 12:35 am

BUFFALO, N.Y. – A New York prison artist who never played golf but became known for drawings of lush courses he could only imagine was set free Wednesday after authorities agreed that another man committed the murder that put him behind bars for nearly three decades.

Valentino Dixon walked out of Erie County Court into bright sunshine and hugs from his mother, daughter and a crowd of other relatives and friends, ready for a meal at Red Lobster and vowing to fight on behalf of others who are wrongly convicted.

"I love y'all," Dixon shouted after trading the green prison uniform he wore in court for jeans and a T-shirt. "It feels great."

Earlier Wednesday, a judge agreed to set aside Dixon's conviction in the 1991 shooting death of 17-year-old Torriano Jackson on a Buffalo street corner and accepted a guilty plea from another man who had confessed to the killing two days after it happened.

"There was a fight. Shots were fired. I grabbed the gun from under the bench, switched it to automatic, all the bullets shot out. Unfortunately, Torriano ended up dying," Lamarr Scott, who has been in prison for 25 years for an unrelated attempted murder, told the court. "I dropped the gun and ran and it was over and done with."

Scott said he had gotten the gun, a Tec-9 semi-automatic, from Dixon and the two men had driven together to the crowded corner where the fighting broke out. Scott was given a sentence of 8 1/3 to 25 years in prison, concurrent with his current term.

Judge Susan Eagan let stand a count of criminal possession of a weapon against Dixon, and its 5- to 15-year sentence, which she said he had satisfied.

Inside Attica: Interviewing Valentino Dixon

"You are eligible for release today," the judge said, igniting applause and shouts from courtroom supporters.

"Mr. Dixon is not an innocent man. Don't be misguided in that at all," Erie County District Attorney John Flynn told reporters after the hearing. He described Dixon as "an up-and-coming drug dealer in the city of Buffalo" at the time of the shooting and said Scott was Dixon's bodyguard.

"Mr. Dixon is innocent of the shooting and of the murder for what he was found guilty of," he said, "but Mr. Dixon brought the gun to the fight. It was Mr. Dixon's gun."

While behind bars, Dixon rekindled his childhood passion for drawing, often spending 10 hours a day creating vivid colored pencil landscapes, including of golf courses, while imagining freedom. Articles in Golf Digest and elsewhere have drawn public attention to Dixon's case. NBC Sports' Jimmy Roberts spotlighted Dixon in a 2013 segment for his "In Play" series on Golf Channel.

“I’ve worked in this business for close to 40 years, and this is the most consequential thing I’ve ever been a part of," Roberts said after learning of Dixon's release. "I’m a sports reporter, but we helped get a man out of prison. I’m humbled and dumbstruck.”

Georgetown University students made a documentary as part of a prison reform course last spring. The class worked with Dixon's attorney, Donald Thompson, to have the conviction overturned.

"It went so far beyond reasonable doubt that it's pretty outrageous that he would have been convicted and it would have been upheld," said Marc Howard, director of the university's Prisons and Justice Initiative. Howard taught the course with childhood friend, Marty Tankleff, who also spent years wrongfully imprisoned.

Dixon said he will keep drawing, while working on behalf of other prisoners.

"If you don't have any money in this system, it's hard to get justice because the system is not equipped or designed to give a poor person a fair trial," he said. "So we have a lot of work ahead of us."

His daughter, Valentina Dixon, was a baby when her father went to prison. She brought her 14-month-old twins, Ava and Levi, to court from their Columbus, Ohio, home.

"We're definitely going to go shopping and go explore life," she said. "I can't wait to get him a cellphone and teach him how to Snapchat."

Dixon's mother, Barbara Dixon, said she was in shock after relying on her faith while fighting for his release.

"We're going to Red Lobster," she said when asked what was next. "And everybody's invited."

Getty Images

Thomas donating to hurricane relief at East Lake

By Jason CrookSeptember 19, 2018, 9:20 pm

Much like in years past, Justin Thomas is using his golf game to help with relief of a natural disaster.

The world No. 4 announced on Twitter Wednesday that he’d be donating $1,000 per birdie and $5,000 per eagle at the Tour Championship to a charity benefiting the victims of Hurricane Florence, which ravaged the Carolinas last week.

At a fan's suggestion, Thomas, who has averaged 4.35 birdies per round this season, also pledged to donate $10,000 for a hole-in-one.

Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday just south of Wrightsville Beach, N.C., and has left much of the area flooded and without power. At least 37 people have died in storm-related incidents.

Getty Images

Rose realizes his No. 1 ranking is precarious

By Rex HoggardSeptember 19, 2018, 8:18 pm

ATLANTA – Asked how he would like to be identified when he was finished playing golf, Justin Rose didn’t hesitate – “major champion, Olympic gold medalist, world No. 1.”

He’s had only a week to enjoy the last accomplishment, but the Englishman is aware of what it means to his career to have finally moved into the top spot in the Official World Golf Ranking.

“It's a moment in your career that you always remember and cherish,” said Rose, who overtook Dustin Johnson with his runner-up finish two weeks ago at the BMW Championship.

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said he took some time last weekend with family and friends to relish the accomplishment and will play his first event this week at the Tour Championship as the world’s best, but he also understands how tenuous his position atop the ranking is at the moment.

“I accept it's really tight up top. It could easily switch this week,” he said. “I just feel that if I go to [No.] 2 or 3 this week, if Dustin and Brooks [Koepka] both play well, I have an opportunity the week after and British Masters, and going to China and Turkey, there's going to be opportunities to get back there.”

Johnson, Koepka and Justin Thomas could unseat Rose atop the ranking this week depending on their finishes at the Tour Championship.