By Dan Reardon
In golf’s earliest days in this country, the road to the professional ranks usually started in the caddie yard. Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson competed against each other as 15-year-olds in the Christmas Caddie tournament at Glen Garden Country Club — one of the game’s most amazing coincidences. During that same period, entitled golfers traveled through the amateur ranks; Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet come to mind.
Times have changed. Today, the path to the PGA Tour passes through local junior golf in a player’s preteen years, high school golf and the AJGA Tour in their teens and then collegiate golf until their early 20s. After that, the professional ranks await, if they get that far.
A player with as much promise and performance as Tony Finau brings to mind a line from Hogan. The Hall of Famer — and former caddie — once described his origins as learning the game “in the dirt.”
For Finau, it was in the garage. The 26-year-old, in his second full year on the PGA Tour, started with his brother Gipper in the family’s Salt Lake City garage with a $.75 six-iron, a $1 putter, a $.50 bag and a net. They hit balls hour after hour without ever taking their swings to the golf course. Their father Kelepi, who immigrated to the U.S. from Tonga when he was a teen, economized even more, using the free putting and chipping areas at local courses to help his boys acquire their short game.
“We grew up on a par-3 golf course. Learned how to chip-and-putt, and when my dad felt like we were good enough to go to a big golf course, we did that,” he recalls. “I think I was maybe 10 years old or 11 years old when I first saw some par-4s. It’s kind of coincidental that my brother and I hit the ball really far, because it’s the last club we learned how to hit.”
You could argue Finau learned from one of the greatest, Jack Nicklaus, but only if you add that the Golden Bear’s book Golf My Way was the teacher’s manual. “I look back now, and I didn’t even know he didn’t even know how to play.”
Success as a high schooler and in the junior ranks made him a college prospect. But Finau and his parents opted for a made-for-TV competition that financed his earliest days as a pro with $100,000 payday.
At 17, with a six-figure check, Finau was headed toward the bright lights. But he took a detour. For the next six years, the kid from the garage bounced around on the mini-tours, paying his bills and his dues. He tried the PGA Tour Q-School qualifier five times, and five times he came up empty. Finau finally filled in all the right answers at the 2014 qualifier and a year later made it to the PGA Tour.
Despite nine missed cuts that first year, he showed enough explosive talent to collect five top 10s, including at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, and finish 43rd in the FedEx standings. The young golfer has six more missed cuts in 2016, but also a PGA Tour win. At the Puerto Rico Open at Cocoa Beach, in an event staged opposite the WGC Match Play Championship, he shot 12-under to win.
At 6’4″, with the body of an NBA small forward, Finau has more than just a good back story and a satellite Tour win to set him apart. He is one of the Tour’s kings of the “macho stick” — the driver — so big off the tee that people go out of their way to watch.
It’s no surprise then that the definition of a drivable par-4 for the player who ranks second for driving distance is different than most. Stories of where he has driven the ball each week on Tour courses are starting to become legend.
When you grow up hitting into a net backstopped by a mattress with a painted target, straightness is hard to gauge. An examination of his full range of Tour stats reveals a need for growth in the direction part of his game. In his first two years on Tour, he ranks outside the top 150 in accuracy. This year his greens in regulation percentage has slipped out of the top 100. A decent lag putter from long range, Finau still struggles from five feet and in.
Tony Finau has demonstrated he skills on the big stage. With a T14 at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay to go along with his PGA T10, major setups haven’t tripped him up as yet. He’s also made $3 million in just 16 months as a PGA Tour player, making his father’s $2.15 investment in a six-iron, putter and bag look comparable to an Apple stock purchase in the 1980s.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.