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Rising son: Family's sacrifices fuel Finau

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(Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 24, 2016. Finau claimed his first PGA Tour title one month later at the Puerto Rico Open.)

On another postcard day in San Diego, Kelepi Finau enters The Lodge at Torrey Pines, picks up his family credential and meanders down to the putting green. He surveys the scene, with PGA Tour players grinding over 5-footers, and gently runs his palm along the finely manicured poa annua grass.

“It doesn’t seem real to me,” he says. “Sometimes I look around, and I can’t believe we got here.”

Finau attends only a few events per year, usually on the West Coast swing or at majors, and on this occasion he has assumed a familiar position: He is watching and supporting one of his nine children, Tony, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound, titanium-denting athletic marvel who epitomizes the modern game that is bigger, stronger and faster than ever before. But for all of Tony’s physical gifts – and yes, there are many, for the 26-year-old Tongan-Samoan-American possesses the size of an NBA small forward, the ranginess of an MLB center fielder and the wingspan of an NFL receiver – it is his family’s backstory that is the most compelling.

A smile never leaves Kelepi’s face as he sits on a wooden bench near the putting green. He laughs easily and often, shaking hands with equipment reps, players and caddies. But during this recent two-hour conversation, there also are a few tears that stream down his face as he recounts the improbable journey to the PGA Tour. Turns out it’s a winding, emotional tale of sacrifice and dedication, discovery and understanding, and, most of all, faith and support. 

KELEPI WAS 12 WHEN HE immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s, leaving behind the simple island life of Tonga, population 105,000, with its grass huts, sweeping beaches and crushed-coral roads. He spent his teenage years in Inglewood, Calif., mowing lawns with his father after school and on weekends to help pay the bills.

When he was 23, he met his wife, Ravena, and moved to Utah to raise their family. Kelepi made $35,000 a year working graveyard shifts for Delta Airlines, where he prepared freights, handled customer service requests and booked reservations.

Tony was born in September 1989, and Gipper followed 11 months later, a happy accident. With two siblings born so close together, they were bound to be inseparable – and headaches. In the hospital, Ravena told her husband: “These two are going to be your project.”

Problem was, there weren’t many outlets for kids in the gang-infested projects of Rose Park, near downtown Salt Lake City. Most of the Polynesians from that troubled area played football, but Gipper, then 5, started watching golf on Saturdays and persuaded his mom to ask Kelepi whether he could try that sport instead.

Kelepi was clueless – he said he had never swung a club, knew nothing about the game. A few of his wife’s cousins played, so he called them and asked questions. He drove to the Jordan River Par-3 course down the street and studied the golfers slashing away on the range. He quizzed the pro-shop attendant about prices.   

Back at home, he crunched the numbers: It was $7.50 a bucket … and they needed thousands of balls to hone their skills … and they needed clubs … and they needed to pay for green fees … and every cost was multiplied by two … and nope. The traditional route wasn’t feasible.

So Kelepi stopped by the local Salvation Army and bought a 6-iron for 75 cents, a putter for $1 and a little red bag for 50 cents. At the library, he checked out magazines, videos and golf books about the swing, none more influential than Jack Nicklaus’ “Golf My Way.”

With no choice but to take advantage of the free part of the course, Kelepi directed his boys toward the short-game area, where they spent hours chipping and putting. To work on their full swing, he built his own driving range, in the family’s garage outside their cramped, three-bedroom duplex. The boys smacked balls off scraps of carpet into a nylon net. Behind the net was a mattress dotted with spray paint – targets to hit from about 5 feet away, so they could work on their trajectory and starting lines. Kelepi scoured garage sales for a cheap camcorder and taped their swings. When the boys went to bed, he cued up the footage and compared their actions with what he had seen in the magazines, videos and books. He was learning, too.

TONY AND GIPPER’S WEEKLY ROUTINE was simple: Utilize the short-game area at the muni, spend four hours each night after school in the garage (even during the frigid winters) and then, once a week, splurge on a bucket to watch their own shots sail through the air. They couldn’t graduate to a regulation-size course until they shot par at Jordan River. Having learned the game from the green back to the tee, like Nicklaus instructed, Tony didn’t hit a driver until age 9.

“The ball-striking was so consistent,” Kelepi said, “because they didn’t focus on where the ball went; they were focusing on the strike. That’s probably the best way to teach kids. The first time they went out on the range, people stopped and stared and said, ‘Who are those guys?’”

And so, after a year of highly informal training, Kelepi entered Gipper, then 6, into his first local tournament. He finished third. Four events later, competing in the 10-and-under division, he won.

Tony, meanwhile, didn’t take the game seriously until May 1997, a month after Tiger Woods’ game-changing Masters victory. Inspired by Woods, and envious of his brother’s instant success, he began to spend more time on the course than the hardwood, if only to keep pace.

“His little brother was so good that it made Tony better in everything,” Kelepi said. “He made it look so easy.”

A few years later, Mark Whetzel, the director of golf at Thanksgiving Point, the top-ranked course in the state, heard about the Finau boys during a lesson. He didn’t need long to recognize their awesome potential.

“Gipper was the famous one locally,” Whetzel said. “There was no question he had this amazing talent, and Tony was an incredible athlete who was just starting to hone his skills.

“When I would work with Gip, he would listen to me, but it was almost like he wasn’t paying attention. Tony was a sponge, sucking in everything I told him. He was really a student of the game, a student of the golf swing.”

Whetzel understood the family’s dire situation – they couldn’t afford a coach, range balls or membership dues. But he still offered them a place to play, as well as equipment, clothes and old driving range mats. “It was a labor of love,” he said.

The Finaus dominated the Utah junior golf circuit over the next few years, but Tony’s profile began to rise nationally at the 2002 Junior World event at Torrey Pines, where he won the 11-12 age division. Before long, he was one of the highest-rated prospects in his class, earning spots in prestigious invitationals, national championships and international team competitions.

“He and his brother were always at the top of their groups, always winning,” said PGA Tour player Zac Blair, who grew up in Ogden, less than an hour from Salt Lake City. “It was always something to chase after.”

But while Blair trained with his father, Jimmy, an accomplished player with PGA Tour experience, at their family-owned, heated driving range, the Finaus beat balls in their garage until they were 14, until they were too tall and their clubs clanked off the metal beams.

Kelepi’s job with Delta allowed the family to fly free on standby, but money was still tight, especially with seven kids. When he was 14, Tony and his mother slept in their car at a PGA Junior Series event in Milwaukee because they couldn’t afford a hotel room. With only enough cash to buy Tony a few McDonald’s hamburgers, Ravena didn’t eat for three days.

Tony Finau at the 2006 Junior Ryder Cup (Getty)

THE FIRST OF MANY DIFFICULT decisions for the Finaus came the week before Tony registered for high school.

Living in Rose Park, Kelepi had to choose whether to send his budding superstar across town to East High or stay home at West. The Finaus’ friends and extended family attended West, but the school didn’t have a golf team; all of the best athletes played either basketball or football. Enrolling his son at East would alienate the local community, but it’d also guarantee a few state championships.

Ravena had largely stayed out of the decision-making process – the two boys, after all, were Kelepi’s “project” – but she couldn’t help but intervene this time.

“If you think they’re the best, prove it to the people that they can be champions there,” she told him. “If they win at East, they’re not learning anything. Loyalty, this one little rule, is going to derail you. They’re going to win now and lose later.”

Kelepi met with the principal at West High and asked about starting a golf team. For the next two years, they struggled to fill out an eight-man roster, even after tryouts, but as a sophomore Tony won medalist honors at the 4A state championship after a closing 63. In Year 3, it all came together, for everyone. For the first time, West beat East at regionals. And the following week, at the state tournament, the Panthers, coached by a man who didn’t even play golf, won the team title by three shots, with Gipper (66) and Tony (68) leading the way.

“It’s one of the proudest accomplishments I’ve ever had on the golf course,” Tony said.

Said Whetzel: “It was like a fairy tale, only better.”

By that point, Tony was the envy of several major college programs, receiving offers from Southern Cal to Stanford to Oregon. He narrowed his list to UNLV and BYU, but in 2007, a businessman approached the family and offered to pony up $50,000 each for the boys’ entry fee into the Ultimate Game, the made-for-TV exhibition in Las Vegas with a $2 million first-place prize.

Even with rumors swirling about Finau’s future plans, BYU coach Bruce Brockbank was willing to take a flier on the phenom who routinely boomed tee shots 360 yards.

“You always hoped somebody could get ahold of him and control his ball,” Brockbank said. “It was just a very unique situation. I thought, ‘Why not go to college and be a little protected? You can shoot 80, but you could also shoot 66 and everyone is still excited.’”

Instead, Finau and his family took the money, a controversial decision that seemed equal parts necessity and naiveté. “To be honest, I didn’t know exactly what it meant at the time,” he said, “but it was a chance to win a lot of money, so I said, ‘why not?’”

Competing the morning of his high school graduation, Finau reached the 12-man final, earning enough to pay back his sponsors and jump-start his career with $100,000. (Scott Piercy, now a three-time Tour winner, took home the $2 million prize.) But at 17, there was no turning back.

“I felt like I was ready to take that on,” he said. “It was intriguing to me at the time. I don’t know if I would be where I am today if I didn’t make that choice. A lot of times college can get you sidetracked. I was ready to turn my full attention to golf.”

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Finau's brawny game quickly turned heads.

His first foray into Tour life came a month after the Ultimate Game, at the 2007 U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. After Monday qualifying, he joined Jesper Parnevik and Kenny Perry for a practice round. Standing on the tee of the downhill, 380-yard 16th hole at Brown Deer Park, they mentioned how John Daly always tried to drive the green (which was fronted by a creek) but could only find the bunker.

Finau proceeded to blast his tee shot onto the green, while Parnevik and Perry stared wide-eyed at the ball’s majestic flight. “That’s going to be your play for the next four days,” they said.

Finau made the cut that week, thanks to a Friday 65, and led the field in driving distance, at 331.6 yards per pop, while playing a big, hard hook. Three years after sleeping in his mother’s car, he pocketed $7,960 in his Tour debut in the same city.

The next year, Finau flew to Florida and tweaked his swing at the David Leadbetter Academy. It was the first time that he had a coach other than his father, and there were growing pains. When a marketing opportunity arose, in 2009, he appeared on Golf Channel’s “Big Break,” alongside his brother. But the breakthrough never came – each fall, his progress stalled at Q-School, where he failed to advance past second stage five times. That left him in golf’s no man’s land, and he toiled for years on the National Pro Golf, Gateway, eGolf and Canadian tours.

“Looking back,” he said, “wow, that was a grind.”

Worse, the foundation of his personal life began to crack. Returning home from a wedding in November 2011, Finau’s mother was killed when the car one of her daughters was driving hit the median and flipped. Ravena was 47.

“She was the centerpiece, the cornerstone of our family,” Tony said. “I had to dig down really deep inside not just for my personal life but also my faith: How does this happen? Where do I go from here? To lose somebody that close to you, and the manner that she did, that was really, really tough.”

The loss hit Gipper, then 21, particularly hard – he took a year off from golf. His story remains a bit of a mystery, if not a cautionary tale. By most accounts, he was the superstar growing up, the kid on the local news, the one with the brightest future. In 2006, he set a Tour record by making the cut in an event at age 16. But Gipper never has been able to clear the final hurdle, flaming out at Q-School each fall, his dream of following in his brother’s footsteps only getting further away. The reasons for that slide are still largely unknown; he did not respond to several interview requests for this story.

“My nervousness of starting to question if they’re both going to get here is because when kids are so good so young, you wonder how is he going to maintain that level for all these years and all the pressure from then all the way to here?” Kelepi Finau said. “That was always my fear.

“The advantage Tony had was he always had Gipper to beat to get here. Gipper only had himself, and when it’s easy for them, there’s a slight sense of entitlement to these kids. You still have to earn the right to be here. You have to show up and prove it.”

Tony is quick to point out that although they’re close, he and his brother are nothing alike.

“I’ve always been a little bit more serious about the game,” he said. “My work ethic has always been a little bit better.”

Plus, Tony’s priorities were evolving. His mother’s death was just one of several life changes that year; he also married at 22 and had a son, Jraice, shortly after.

“The things that transpired in my life,” Tony said, “they didn’t happen in the order that they’re supposed to, or are ideal. Everything just kind of fell in my lap at a young age. Things were thrown at me very fast.

As for his game, Finau returned to the basics, spending four years without a swing coach until he finally broke through at Q-School in 2013. He finished third at finals to earn full status on the circuit for the following year. He had reached the next step, finally.

“I was more relieved than anything,” he said. “I just knew the timing was right. The pressure was starting to build and I told myself: ‘Your time is now, T.’ That was a big window that I crept through.”

It’s natural to look at Finau’s career progression and wonder what took so long, wonder why he needed six years to reach golf’s equivalent of Triple A, wonder whether the many skeptics back in ’07 were right after all.

“But where Tony is today,” Whetzel said, “that’s where everybody else would be if they graduated from college. Tony has done the exact same timeline – he just went a different route. He’s a lot more battle-tested than your average four-year college kid. He’s been out there scraping for his meal ticket.”

IN THE SPRING OF 2014, after a slow start to the season, Finau reached out to Scottsdale-based swing coach Boyd Summerhays.

During his playing days, injuries led Summerhays (the brother of PGA Tour player Daniel) to start questioning every aspect of his swing, and he bounced from teacher to teacher and theory to theory. “At the end, I didn’t know what I did well anymore,” Summerhays said. Finau found himself at a similar crossroads, his confidence shaken after going it alone for so long.

Utah has such a tight-knit golf community that Summerhays, 36, kept tabs on Finau’s career, even though he was 10 years older. Like everyone else, Summerhays was well aware of Finau’s prodigious length but also knew that it needed to be harnessed to unlock his full potential.

Finau’s biggest issue was that his ball spun and curved too much, which proved problematic on Tour-caliber courses that required carries over bunkers and hazards. Though he still primarily hit a fade, he worked to create a more shallow entry into the ball, allowing him to better control his distance and trajectory.

Soon after he began working with Summerhays, Finau picked up a couple of top-10s before his victory at the Stonebrae Classic in August clinched his PGA Tour card for the first time. Freed up, Finau’s rookie season on the big tour exceeded even his own expectations – in 31 starts, he posted five top-10s, contended at the U.S. Open, led the PGA Championship after 52 holes and reached the third leg of the FedEx Cup Playoffs. Power has long defined Finau’s game, but it’s a testament to his all-around arsenal that he recorded top-25s in more than half his starts on courses he had never seen. His earnings: $2.09 million.

“You’ve gotta admire the kid,” said Brockbank, the BYU coach, “for going back out there, bumping his nose and getting to where he is now.”

Because of his physical gifts – he can dunk a basketball without a running start – Finau’s ceiling seems impossibly high.

“He’s an athlete,” Summerhays said. “He has great body awareness, a huge wingspan and hands, size-15 feet. But he has tremendous flexibility for a big guy; he has really kept his range of motion and clears his body nicely. With his length and athleticism, he’s built to last.”

The question Finau is asked most often, since he first blasted 300-yard drives as a 13-year-old, is this: How do you hit it so far? He ranks third on Tour this season in driving distance, at 318.2 yards, and that’s without swinging full throttle.

Last month at Torrey Pines, he unloaded on a tee shot on the par-5 18th hole. His ball hadn’t even started its descent when he turned to Summerhays, who has been filling in as his caddie, and woofed, “That’s smashed.” In a cold downpour, his tee ball still carried 356 yards. All he had left into the green was a three-quarter 9-iron.

“Tony honestly doesn’t try to hit it that hard,” Summerhays said. “But when he goes after it, he can hit it forever.”

From a technical standpoint, Finau, who already has three top-20s this season, has a remarkable turn away from the ball and little clubface rotation at impact. It’s a technique he grooved at a young age, in the family’s garage, under his father’s supervision, when he hit off strips of carpet into the spray-painted mattress.

“When Tony hits a ball, he hits it solid,” Summerhays said. “He just catches it flush almost every time. When you’re hitting it into a net or a mattress, you don’t know which way it’s curving, but you can tell if it’s solid. He hits the back of the ball solidly, and he does it a lot.”

Tony Finau at this year's Northern Trust Open. (Getty)

GOLF AT THE ELITE LEVEL is a group effort; it’s why some of the world’s best players have begun using the personal pronoun “we” in interviews, and why they praise the work of their “team” when they win.

Likewise, it took an entire family to turn Finau into a Tour player. Ravena worked odd jobs and juggled the hectic lives of seven kids. Kelepi, now 53 and remarried, watched every session in the garage, listened to every lesson at Thanksgiving Point, walked every match for West High and drove across the country for every important tournament. But there was a cost for all of that time and energy lost.

“Tony’s dad put all of his chips in one basket, because he knew they had potential and an opportunity to help the family out,” Whetzel said. “The sacrifice he made is he didn’t spend as much time with the other [five] children. And they all had to make a sacrifice too, because they took a backseat to make sure Tony and Gip had enough.”

Finau feels the pull of family now more than ever. He already has three young children of his own (ages 1-4). He supports a large extended family. And a year ago, he started his own foundation, to give back to his local community and help underprivileged kids.  

“The No. 1 institution in the world is family,” he said. “It’s so powerful. My parents believed in me, and that’s a huge reason why I’m here today.”

Even now, after all these years, the elder Finau doesn’t play often, teeing it up only in scrambles or with his kids. He says he could be decent, if he put in the time, like his sons did, but he doesn’t have the desire.

“My passion,” Kelepi said, “is watching and understanding.”

And so he is content to slip into the background, to observe and to enjoy the realization of an improbable dream – the reason he kneels and touches the grass at every event he attends.

About 200 yards away, Tony is finishing his practice round on a 68-degree, cloudless afternoon at one of golf’s most spectacular venues. Outfitted in Nike gear, like his famous son, Kelepi strolls over to the 18th hole, slips under the ropes and joins the group on the front of the green.

“Came from nothing, knew nothing, and to have a kid out here? It’s impossible,” he said. “What a great country this is. You can do whatever you want, your own way, and still be successful.”