The incredible story of how Tony Finau made his way to the top of the game
Tony Finau Interview – “The 1997 Masters Changed Everything For Me”
Thursday, April 5, 2018 was a day that ended well for Tony Finau, although its beginning was a living nightmare.
It was the day of his Masters debut at Augusta National – an emotional milestone that had loomed far out of reach for many years – but Finau literally couldn’t walk down the stairs.
His manager had to prop him up, such was the excruciating pain in Finau’s left ankle, yet he was supposed to tee off in the first Major of the year in five hours’ time.
Impossible, you’d think.
And all because of a playful celebration of a hole-in-one at the previous day’s Par 3 Contest that went horribly wrong.
You have probably seen the footage, as hard to watch as it is.
It seemed an innocuous jig down the grassy slope in front of the 7th tee until Finau’s left foot gave way.
He partially dislocated his ankle before calmly reaching down to ease the joint back into place.
“I had so much adrenaline when I hit the hole-in-one that when my ankle went I was not in much pain, to be honest,” recalls Finau in an exclusive interview.
He appeared to walk it off, although in reality his Masters preparations had been dispatched into nearby Ike’s Pond.
Finau had 20 hours before his 12:43 first-round tee time to see if he could play.
“The worst pain was that night and the following morning,” admits Finau, aged 29 but 28 at the time.
“I don’t know if I slept because I was going on and off with an ice wrap and a heat wrap.
“I struggled to sleep, not just because of the pain and the treatment but mentally; man, I figured my chances of playing in The Masters for the first time had just slipped.
“When it was time to get up in the morning to get an MRI and an x-ray I couldn’t walk or put any weight on my left foot.
“My manager had to help me into the car. The pain was ten out of ten and I really thought my chances of playing were pretty much gone.”
An early tee time that day would have forced Finau to withdraw, but he was lifted when the x-ray and MRI came up clear.
Finau was also advised his ankle would recover better without any pain-killing injections, so ibuprofen pills were all he took, along with strapping with Stamina Pro patches to reduce inflammation.
“I was told it was up to my pain threshold whether I could play and at that point I knew I wanted to give it a go.
“I had some pretty intense massage treatment to increase the blood flow and movement. That was excruciating, but I understood the process.”
Instead of heading home to keep his foot raised like any normal person, Finau headed to Augusta’s practice ground to work out with coach Boyd Summerhays how he could keep the golf ball straight without transferring weight through his left side, all in the space of two hours.
“I could not apply much pressure on my left foot so I started my swing with my weight back, kind of like Henrik Stenson,” he explains.
“When I took the club back I really had to press into that right foot and then when I hit the shot I had to stay back there and not transfer my weight.
“My launch angle became much higher on every club. That was something I had to deal with through The Masters.”
Mind over matter
It was some kind of miracle that Finau even made it to the first tee, let alone that he managed to shoot 68, four-under-par.
Having made the cut, Finau closed his debut with six straight birdies on the back nine on Sunday afternoon to finish tied for 10th, thereby securing his invitation to the 2019 Masters.
“It was a pretty cool feat,” he says.
“When I walked off the 72nd hole it felt as if I had won the tournament.
“Ultimately it was a dream week, the way it happened.
“I feel like it was meant to be and it goes to show that our minds are stronger than we sometimes realise.
“If you can have the attitude to never give up then good things can happen.”
For Finau, his first drive beneath the shady canopy of Magnolia Lane was particularly poignant.
Watch: Tony Finau What’s in the bag?
He can pinpoint the moment he became a golfer.
Up until the 1997 Masters, golf was not on the landscape surrounding Finau at all, and why should it have been when at seven years old he was a budding basketball star in the deprived Rose Park neighbourhood of Salt Lake City?
“It’s a good neighbourhood but a tough one,” Finau once explained.
“You learn to fight.”
There were plenty of basketball hoops in Rose Park and no shortage of pick-up games, but golf… what?
Then Tiger Woods, aged only 21 at the time, gave the sport its most significant shake-down ever, over 72 holes at Augusta.
He won by a record 12 shots and 270 also remains a scoring record, and by the first black golfer to win at Augusta.
Woods set 20 Masters records that week and was the youngest to don the Green Jacket, the first of his 15 Major victories.
Back in Rose Park, Finau was gripped.
“The 1997 Masters kind of changed everything for me,” he says.
“That is the reason I started playing golf.
“The ‘97 Masters drew my eyes to the game.
“It was very special for my dad, me and my brother [Gipper] to see someone like Tiger win, not only with how classy he was and with what he brought to the game, but to see that guy have the same skin colour as ours.
“It was very meaningful because at that moment we realised that maybe we could have a place in this game.
“Tiger broke that barrier in the ’97 Masters and from then we grew up to love golf and love playing the game.”
But it wasn’t straightforward for the Finaus.
Tony was one of seven children of mum Ravena and dad Kelepi.
Ravena – who was lost to a car accident in 2011 at the age of 47 – stayed at home or kept odd jobs, while Kelepi was an airport baggage handler.
Kelepi would scour local garage sales for cheap second-hand golf clubs and balls for the boys, and he hoisted up an old mattress in the middle of the garage, so it was like a partition down the middle.
While Tony would hit golf balls into painted targets on the mattress from one side, Gipper would do the same from the other, playing off strips of old carpet on a cement floor.
Thwack-thud, thwack-thud, thwack-thud, for hours on end.
The sweeter the thwack, the louder the thud.
When they had a couple of dollars, the boys would get a bucket of balls at a local range so they could see their ball flight.
The Finau family has Polynesian heritage.
Kelepi was born in Tonga while Ravena’s parents were from Tonga and Samoa, and Ravena would organise traditional Polynesian celebrations – luaus – at which Tony and Gipper would perform intricate dances with flaming knives.
“We would hold the luaus once or twice a year and they would help fund the travel and tournaments,” says Finau.
“It was a cool thing and serves as testament to my parents: they had two boys who wanted to play golf and they put a lot of time and resources into enabling us to pursue our dreams and goals.
“When I look back now, we didn’t have the money to play golf.
“Golf is an expensive game and we came from very humble beginnings.
“Golf shouldn’t have been an option for us, but our parents sacrificed quite a bit and I am always humbled by the thought of what they did for us.”
At the local par-3 muni, Jordan River, the boys could hone their short games for free around the practice green, and play nine holes when they could afford it.
The local gangs stayed away from the golf course too, and when the pro saw the dogged commitment of the Finau brothers he let them play for free when the course was quiet.
They would play the course up to seven times a day.
“At Jordan River we learned how to play the game from the green back,” adds Finau.
“It was a very good golf course; tree-lined.
“The longest hole was 165 yards and the shortest was 65 or 70 yards.”
Today, sadly, Jordan River no longer exists – it’s now a frisbee golf course.
At 17, Finau was set to accept a golf scholarship at Brigham Young University in his home state of Utah, when the opportunity arose to compete in a TV event in Las Vegas with a first prize of $2million.
“It was called The Ultimate Game,” says Finau, who joined Gipper in the 40-man starting field thanks to a sponsor who paid the $50,000 entry fee for each brother.
Scott Piercy, Kevin Streelman and Spencer Levin, who would all find their way to the PGA Tour, were also in the field.
“We only needed to turn pro if we reached the finals and low and behold I did reach the finals, meaning I was one of 12 guys with a chance to win $2million.
“I had always dreamed of going to college and I had verbally committed to play golf at BYU, but as a family we made the decision – and with our financial situation – that I would turn pro and try to win the $2million.
“It was the spring of 2007 and I had only been playing golf for nine years.
“I earned $100,000 for reaching the finals, although half of that went back to my sponsor.”
Local boy Piercy, 28 at the time, won the $2million and made his way to the PGA Tour two years later.
“Lee Trevino was one of the commentators and he watched me play every hole that week,” adds Finau.
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“He saw my potential and helped me get an equipment affiliation. Everything happened pretty fast.”
More than 12 years later – and with five failed visits to PGA Tour Q-School now in the distant past – Finau is a star of the global game.
He just needs to convert a couple of his regular top-ten finishes on the PGA Tour into victories, to add to his lone success at the 2016 Puerto Rico Open – he has had seven runners-up place since that win, and has now netted over $18m in his short PGA Tour career.
Standing six foot four and one of the longest hitters on tour, but with that deft Jordan River short game to match, Finau is too good to own a solitary title for long.
“I was looking to win this year,” said Finau after the PGA Tour’s season-closing Tour Championship, where he finished 7th to leave him 16th in the FedExCup.
“I felt my game was ready going into the season after some Ryder Cup experience and I had a few close calls.
“But I’m in a great position to win tournaments this next season and in years to come.
“The experience is going to pay off eventually and I just have to try and stay patient.
“I feel like I’ve got better every year. I understand more about myself and my game and each year I get more comfortable out here.”
Finau was only one among vast legions – young and old, black and white, male and female – who took up golf after the ’97 Masters.
All of them dreamt of fist-pumping on Augusta’s 18th just like Tiger, yet out of all of them, Finau is the one who might just do it.