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'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.

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Paisley (61) leads Tour Championship

By Associated PressSeptember 20, 2018, 11:56 pm

ATLANTIC BEACH, Fla. – Chris Paisley birdied four of the last five holes for a 10-under 61 and the first-round lead Thursday in the season-ending Tour Championship.

The South African Open winner in January for his first European Tour title, Paisley played the back nine first at Atlantic Beach Country Club, holing a bunker shot for an eagle on the par-5 18th. On the front nine, he birdied the par-3 fifth and finished with three straight birdies.

''I think just all around was really good,'' Paisley said. ''I hit it well off the tee, which gave me a lot of kind of short irons into the greens and opportunities. I hit a lot of really good iron shots close, and then a few other bonus kind of things happened where I holed the bunker shot on 18 and holed a long putt on No. 8.''

The 32-year-old Englishman missed the cuts in the first three Tour Finals events after getting into the series as a non-member PGA Tour with enough money to have placed in the top 200 in the FedEx Cup. The final card went for $40,625 last year, with Paisley needs to finish in a two-way tie for fourth or better to mathematically have a chance to secure one of the 25 PGA Tour at stake.

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

''The nice thing was I won early in the year in Europe,'' said Paisley, a former University of Tennessee player. ''I've got the first two Final series events locked up, I think I'm in those. I'm not guaranteed to be in Dubai yet. But I just thought we have a house over here, my wife's American, my goal is to try to get on the PGA Tour, so it was a perfect opportunity to try and do it.''

Cameron Tringale and Canadian Ben Silverman were two strokes back at 63. Tringale is tied for 83rd in the PGA Tour card race with $2,660, and Silverman is tied for 85th at $2,600.

''I hit a lot of good shots and made some good putts,'' Silverman said. ''Actually, it could have been lower, but I'm not complaining. Missed a couple putts inside 6x feet, but I'm not complaining at all, it was a great round.''

Lucas Glover was at 64 with Ben Crane, Nicholas Lindheim, Matt Every, Trevor Cone, Denny McCarthy, Carlos Ortiz and Jose de Jesus Rodriguez. Carlos Ortiz and Jose de Jesus Rodriguez earned PGA Tour cards as top-25 finishers on the Tour regular-season money list, and McCarthy has made $75,793 in the first three Finals events to also wrap up a card. In the race for the 25 cards, Lindholm is 19th with $35,836, Every 30th with $25,733, Glover 40th with $17,212, and Cone 59th with $8,162

The series features the top 75 players from the regular-season money list, Nos. 126-200 in the PGA Tour's FedEx Cup standings, and Paisley and other non-members with enough money to have placed in the top 200. The top-25 finishers on the regular-season money list are competing against each other for tour priority, with regular-season earnings counting in their totals. The other players are fighting for the 25 cards based on series earnings.

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McIlroy likely to join PGA Tour PAC next year

By Rex HoggardSeptember 20, 2018, 11:28 pm

ATLANTA – The upside of the PGA Tour’s sweeping changes to next year’s playoff finale, along with a host of other significant changes to the schedule, seems to be more engagement in circuit policy by top players.

Jordan Spieth served on the player advisory council this season and will begin his three-year term as one of four player directors on the policy board next year, and Justin Thomas also was on this year’s PAC.

Those meetings might become even more high profile next year.

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

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“I'm not on the PAC. I'm probably going to join the PAC next year. Nice to sort of know what's going on and give your input and whatever,” Rory McIlroy said following his round on Thursday at the Tour Championship.

McIlroy said he spoke with Tour commissioner Jay Monahan about the transition to a strokes-based format for the Tour Championship starting next year. Given his take on Thursday to the media it must have been an interesting conversation.

“I like it for the FedExCup. I don't necessarily think it should be an official Tour win. I don't know how the World Ranking points are going to work,” said McIlroy, who is tied for fifth after a first-round 67 at East Lake. “There's a lot of stuff that still needs to be figured out. But in terms of deciding the FedExCup, I think it's good.”

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Thomas (67) happy to feel no pain in wrist

By Rex HoggardSeptember 20, 2018, 11:03 pm

ATLANTA – When Justin Thomas arrived at East Lake he didn’t have very high expectations.

After injuring his right wrist during the final round of the BMW Championship he spent last week in south Florida getting therapy after being diagnosed with a case of tendinitis and little else.

He said he didn’t hit a full shot last week and didn’t expect much out of his game at the finale, but was pleasantly surprised with his play following an opening 67 that left him tied for fifth place and two strokes off the lead. But most of all he was pleased that he didn’t feel any pain in his wrist.

Projected FedExCup standings

Full-field scores from the Tour Championship

Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I thought that I may not be playing very well because of my preparation being able to hit as few balls as I have, but no, in terms of pain, it's not an issue,” he said.

Thomas explained that he tested the wrist earlier this week to be sure he was pain-free and conceded he considered not playing the Tour Championship in order to be as healthy as possible for next week’s Ryder Cup.

“If it would have hurt at all, I wouldn't have played,” said Thomas, who will be a rookie on this year’s U.S. team. “No. 1 most important part is my future and my career. I don't want to do anything that's going to put me out for a while. But to me, second most important is Ryder Cup. I would rather not play this week and play the Ryder Cup and be fresh and make sure I'm going to get as many points for the team as possible.”

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Fowler 'pain free' and tied for Tour Championship lead

By Rex HoggardSeptember 20, 2018, 11:01 pm

ATLANTA – The most important member of Team USA at next week’s Ryder Cup may be the team trainer.

Justin Thomas began the season finale nursing a case of tendonitis in his right wrist and Rickie Fowler skipped the first two playoff events after being slowed by a right oblique injury.

Neither player seemed impacted by the injuries on Thursday at the Tour Championship, with Thomas tied for fifth at 3 under and Fowler tied for the lead with Tiger Woods at 5 under par.

Current FedExCup standings

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“I needed the 2 1/2 weeks or so of just sitting around really not doing a whole lot,” said Fowler, who tied for eighth last week at the BMW Championship. “It was definitely the right call. If I would have played through the first or second playoff events, there was really no benefit, especially looking at the ultimate goal being ready for the Ryder Cup and to have a chance to be here at East Lake.”

Being rested and pain-free is a vast improvement over how he felt at the PGA Championship last month, when he underwent therapy before and after each round and had to wear tape just to play.

“It's nice to be back swinging pain-free because I wouldn't have wanted to deal with how it felt during PGA week for a continued amount of time,” said Fowler, who finished his day with a bogey-free closing nine to secure a spot in Friday’s final group with Woods.