TONY FINAU

GOLF SAVED HIM FROM GANG­STERS

Golf Digest (South Africa) - - Front Page -

I’M NO AUTHOR­ITY on the PGA Tour, be­cause I just got here. I’m a Web.com Tour graduate, and it took a while to get to the big show – I’d missed making it through the old Q school five times. I can’t get over how nice it is out here.The fact I get a cour­tesy car ev­ery week blows me away.The food is un­real – I love the ex­pres­sion “player din­ing.” It’s a long way from the mini-tours, where my big meal of the day was the soup and sand­wiches the spon­sor put out. It’s amaz­ing how we have an as­sort­ment of range balls to choose from. I’m ad­dressed cor­rectly as “Mr FEE-now” more, and “Mr Fuh-NOO” less. It’s a whole new level of re­spect.

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I’M ONLY 26, but I’ve been a pro for eight years, and I’m start­ing to understand what it takes on tour. For starters, you can ven­ture a lit­tle from who you are as a golfer, but don’t mess with your swing DNA too much. Lee Trevino didn’t be­come great by try­ing to hit high hooks, right? Next, you have to de­velop some thick skin, be­cause ups and downs are part of the deal.We lose a lot. Next, al­ways match your game to the golf course rather than the other way around. Last, you can’t be a crazy ex­citable per­son. Get­ting wildly pumped up and then try­ing to make good de­ci­sions and con­trol your dis­tances is a tough fit.

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WE GREW UP in the Rose Park sec­tion of Salt Lake City in Utah. It’s a good neigh­bour­hood but a tough one, on the poor side but proud. Sports are big.You learn to fight. My lit­tle brother, Gip­per – his given name is Kelepi – and I are only 11 months apart, and he was al­ways the talker. From el­e­men­tary school on, he’d start trou­ble with big­ger kids, know­ing I’d be there to bail him out. He’d talk trash, and when he was ready to get his butt kicked, I’d come in and throw the punches. Then Gip­per would move back in and talk more smack to the guy on the ground, like he was the one who just gave the beat­down. He was a pain, but I love the guy.We grew up closer than most twins. Un­til we were about 21 we played and prac­tised to­gether, shared the same car, stayed in the same ho­tels, ev­ery­thing. Gip­per is try­ing hard to get where I am now. I’ll al­ways have his back.

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DUR­ING WIN­TER, my dad hung an old mat­tress in our lit­tle garage. I would hit balls into it from one side, Gip­per from the other. The mat­tress held up okay, but we were al­ways wear­ing out the lit­tle strips of car­pet my dad had scrounged up for us to hit off. There was no heater, and it would be about 20 de­grees (mi­nus 6C). Gip­per and I would go for 90 min­utes, go in­side to thaw out our hands, then go at it some more.The thump­ing sound of the balls hit­ting that mat­tress is stamped in my mind. Some­times, when I’m not play­ing par­tic­u­larly well and need a lit­tle mo­ti­va­tion, I’ll hear that thump­ing sound. It re­minds me of where I came from and the price I’ve paid to get where I am.

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THE MAT­TRESS was good train­ing, really. When your hands are cold and you’re hit­ting with old, low-qual­ity irons – my first one was a Mer­lin model with a green shaft – you learn what to do to hit the ball solid.The strips of car­pet were laid on a ce­ment floor, so that taught us not to get too steep and hit down on the ball too much.The rub­ber grips on the clubs were old and slick, so you needed a sound grip.To help us learn tra­jec­tory, my dad spray­painted lit­tle dots from high to low on the mat­tress. And then there was that thump­ing sound. The louder it was, the bet­ter you were hit­ting it.

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IT’S FUNNY what a lit­tle sib­ling jeal­ousy can do. When I was 7, the TV and news peo­ple started com­ing out to the house to do sto­ries on Gip­per. He was sort of a prodigy, beat­ing much older kids in ju­nior tour­na­ments. I en­vied that at­ten­tion, so I started play­ing, too. It took me a couple of years to draw even with Gip­per, and longer than that to start beat­ing him once in a while. Gip­per’s a heck­uva player.

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WE DIDN’T HAVE CA­BLE TV. We just couldn’t af­ford it. But you don’t need ca­ble to watch the Mas­ters. In 1997, at the ex­act mo­ment I started out, I watched Tiger Woods win the Mas­ters.The way he fist-pumped, the red shirt, his power com­pared to the other play­ers, the way he made the fans go crazy, and the raw­ness of it all seemed larger than life. I thought, I want to be like that. It’s im­pos­si­ble to over­es­ti­mate Tiger’s in­flu­ence on kids like me, or the im­pact he’s had on golf in gen­eral. He’s an icon, ab­so­lutely one of a kind. I think peo­ple should go out of their way to be nice to him. I haven’t played with Tiger yet or even met him, but when I do, I’m go­ing to thank him.

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NEED­LESS TO SAY, the Mas­ters is the tour­na­ment I’d like to play in and win the most. I’ve never seen it in per­son and wouldn’t go even if you gave me tick­ets, be­cause I made a prom­ise to my­self as a kid that I wouldn’t go un­til I played my way there. It’s the only tour­na­ment I watch on TV, and I watch it all four days. I al­ways wear a green shirt on Sun­days, and I have in mind a shade that would go well with a green jacket.

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JOR­DAN RIVER GOLF COURSE was a lit­tle city­owned par-3 lay­out a couple of blocks from our house. When my par­ents learned that we

‘PAY IT FOR­WARD A LIT­TLE. IT’S GOOD FOR YOUR KARMA.’

could chip and putt there for free, they started let­ting us hang out there, first Gip­per, then me. My dad didn’t play golf, but he heard that Tiger learned the game from the green back­ward, so it sounded per­fect. My brother and I hung out there till dark al­most ev­ery day. At first we just prac­tised. Green fees weren’t much, but they’re a lot when you have noth­ing. When the pro there saw how ded­i­cated we were, he started let­ting us play for free.We wore that lit­tle par 3 out. One day I played it seven times.You don’t need an elab­o­rate train­ing ground to get good.

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THE JOR­DAN RIVER isn’t so much a river as a large, slow-mov­ing canal that flows into the Great Salt Lake. The mud in it is the nas­ti­est stuff you can imag­ine: black, greasy and stinky. It was home to mos­qui­toes that would swarm. To this day I never linger over the ball, and I wear tall crew socks – rem­nants of the Jor­dan River mos­quito days.

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TO THE EV­ERY­DAY GOLFERS out there: Pick up a kid’s green fee when you can. To the starters on the first tee who no­tice poor kids hang­ing around: Let them play for free when it’s not busy.To the head pros: Don’t get on the starters for do­ing that.To the bosses of the head pros: Don’t threaten to fire them for giv­ing the kids a break. To ev­ery­body: Pay it for­ward a lit­tle. It’s good for your karma.

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GROW­ING UP, there were gangs all around us: the Ton­gan Crip Gang, the Sons of Samoa and a few oth­ers that had come up from Los An­ge­les and formed a pres­ence in Rose Park. A lot of drugs, some crime, and a lot of peer pres­sure to get into that. Golf saved us. My de­sire to im­prove at golf dis­tracted me from a lot of the temp­ta­tion, but the big­gest thing was just hang­ing out at the golf course. Gangs don’t hang out at golf cour­ses. Jor­dan River Golf Course cre­ated a phys­i­cal bar­rier be­tween me and that bad el­e­ment. Af­ter Gip­per and I be­gan hav­ing some suc­cess, we gained a cer­tain mea­sure of hands-off re­spect, where even the bad guys saw we had value as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Poly­ne­sian peo­ples.

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LIKE GIP­PER, my dad’s given name is Kelepi, but he goes by Gary and is an amaz­ing man. One of those guys who is in­stantly good at any­thing he tries. Hand my dad a ten­nis rac­quet, and within an hour he’ll beat you. In high school he starred in bas­ket­ball, base­ball, foot­ball and track. He even boxed in Golden Gloves. He plays gui­tar, bass, drums and trum­pet. High-level ver­sa­til­ity runs in our fam­ily, and it’s a big ex­tended fam­ily.Two of my sis­ters played Di­vi­sion I vol­ley­ball.Two of my cousins played in the NFL, and one of my sec­ond-cousins, Jabari Parker, plays for the Mil­wau­kee Bucks. I’ve met Jabari only once, when he made a re­cruit­ing visit to Brigham Young be­fore de­cid­ing on Duke. But we fol­low each other.

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BE­CAUSE MY DAD didn’t play golf, he went to the lo­cal li­brary

‘GOLF SAVED US. . . . GANGS DON’T HANG OUT AT GOLF COUR­SES.’

and checked out some VHS in­struc­tion videos and a copy of Jack Nick­laus’ book Golf My Way. He read it closely, and the one thing he harped on was Jack’s ob­ser­va­tion that you can ma­noeu­vre the ball with just one swing. All you do is ad­just your stance and the club­face at ad­dress. Keep it sim­ple. My teacher, Boyd Sum­mer­hays, and I have gone a lit­tle fur­ther than that as we re­fine my swing, but we don’t de­vi­ate much.

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BY THE TIME I WAS 14, I knew the rudi­ments of golf bet­ting. By the time I was 17, I had it down cold. When I was des­per­ate for cash, I’d get in the car and drive to Las Vegas. There were al­ways some high-rollers ready to put cash up against a few pros. They weren’t too wary of me. I’d show up in bas­ket­ball shorts and T-shirt, no cap. The goofy crew socks. No head­cov­ers on my woods. I wore golf shoes that were in­ex­pen­sive and a lit­tle worn. Be­ing a per­son of colour took care of the rest – ever seen a Ton­gan-Samoan who could play? I did noth­ing dis­hon­est at all with hand­i­cap strokes; it wasn’t nec­es­sary. I turned $30 into $500 a lot of times that way.

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MY DAD was really good at ev­ery­thing but not awesome at any one thing. With Gip­per and me, he felt if we put all our en­ergy into one thing, it could be our ticket out. I played var­sity bas­ket­ball in high school and had schol­ar­ship of­fers in that as well as golf, but even with a full ride, we knew I couldn’t make it fi­nan­cially. A schol­ar­ship doesn’t cover your car, clothes, food or vis­its home. So in 2007, at 17, I turned pro.

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WHAT REALLY PUSHED the de­ci­sion along was The Ul­ti­mate Game, a made-for-TV event that June at the Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas. It worked like this: There were 40 con­tes­tants, each putting up $50 000. Af­ter two rounds of match play, the 10 sur­vivors and two guys from the losers’ bracket played 36 holes, with the win­ner get­ting $2 mil­lion. The next nine guys got their $50 000 en­try fee back, plus an­other $50 000.A pri­vate spon­sor put up the $50 000 and told me to go play. How could I not turn pro? With a de­cent show­ing, it would be more money than I ever saw in my life.

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THERE WERE SOME STUDS in that field, a mix of good pros and really good am­a­teurs. Scott Piercy, Kevin Streel­man and Spencer Levin were there. I won my first match against an older guy, then drew Rick Rho­den. I had ex­tra in­cen­tive to win. My high school grad­u­a­tion was that night, and if I didn’t win, I had to stick around to play in a con­so­la­tion bracket, and that meant miss­ing grad­u­a­tion. I closed Rick out on the 17th hole, flew home and made my grad­u­a­tion, then flew back to Las Vegas for the fi­nals the fol­low­ing week.

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I DIDN’T WIN The Ul­ti­mate Game, but I made enough money to pay back my spon­sor, with enough left over to fi­nance some mini-tour stuff.The Ul­ti­mate Game was tele­vised on Fox, with Trevino brought in to do some of the com­men­tat­ing. The first hole at Wynn is a 406yard par 4. Lee was stand­ing near the first tee when I flew my drive just short of the green. (At 6-4 and 91 kilo­grams, Finau was sev­enth in the 2015 PGA Tour driv­ing dis­tance stats at 309 yards). As I plucked my tee out of the ground, we made eye con­tact, and Lee gave me this look I’ll never forget, and a wink. Later, he took me aside and said, “Son, you can be some­thing at this game.” A short time later, I got a call from Call­away Golf. On Lee’s rec­om­men­da­tion, they gave me a three-year deal.

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IN 2009, Gip­per and I were play­ing in a Gate­way Tour event in Ari­zona. Next to the range was a tent la­belled “The Big Break.” We didn’t know what “The Big Break” was. It had been go­ing for six years, but re­mem­ber, we lived in a house with no ca­ble TV. A guy came over and in­ter­viewed us and filmed our swings. Three weeks later, the phone rings, and it’s Golf Chan­nel, ask­ing if we wanted to ap­pear on the show. We jumped at it, mainly be­cause the win­ner got a spot in a PGA Tour event.We went down and played. It took two weeks. Gip­per fin­ished fourth, and I got to the fi­nal against Mike Perez, Pat Perez’s brother. It was stroke play, and I led by two shots with two holes to play. The 17th hole was a dog­leg-left par 4 with a cart­path run­ning across the fair­way. I hit a huge drive, dead cen­tre. Per­fect. Ex­cept it hits that cart­path and takes a huge bounce into wa­ter. I made bo­gey, Mike birdied, and now we’re tied. On the first play­off hole, Mike made a 25-footer to win. That was tough for a 20-year-old kid to take. In 15 min­utes, I went from play­ing in that tour event to tak­ing a long plane ride home to Utah.

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IN THE POLY­NE­SIAN CUL­TURE, what’s mine is yours. If you come to our homes, all that we have is yours while you’re there. Back in the is­lands, life is still pretty ru­ral, and peo­ple grow a lot of what they eat.As much as we strug­gled grow­ing up, we al­ways had good food to eat.

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I MEN­TION MY DAD A LOT, but my mom, Ravena, was tal­ented, too. When I was young she taught me the fire-knife dance. You con­nect sharp knives at the end of a long stick, at­tach some roof­ing ma­te­rial out by the knives, light the ends on fire and twirl it sim­i­lar to a ba­ton, and elab­o­rately, while danc­ing. I did the fire-knife dance un­til I was 15.The scars you see up and down my arms are from cut­ting my­self with the knives. I had to give that up. One wrong move could end my golf ca­reer.

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ON NOVEM­BER 27, 2011, we learned my mom had died in a car accident. One of my broth­ers and a sis­ter were in the same car and were in­jured. My mom re­ferred to her­self as “Mom da bomb” be­cause she was the cen­tre of our fam­ily. All of us were heart­bro­ken. My brother and sis­ter were moved to a hos­pi­tal in Salt Lake where, a day later, on Novem­ber 28, my girl­friend, Alayna – we’ve since got mar­ried – gave birth to our son, Jraice, in an­other part of the hos­pi­tal. Talk about a range of emo­tions. A few months later, Alayna was preg­nant again. We were liv­ing in a $600-per-month apart­ment, the bills were pil­ing up, and I had no sta­tus on any tour. Sit­ting at our lit­tle kitchen ta­ble, I thought, Man, this is tough. This is the real deal. A week later, I got my first ul­cer. Noth­ing I’m go­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence on a golf course can match that kind of pres­sure.

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THAT COUR­TESY CAR I was brag­ging about? I lost the keys to it the other day and had to bum a ride back to the ho­tel.

‘BY THE TIME I WAS 14, I KNEW THE RUDI­MENTS OF GOLF BET­TING. BY THE TIME I WAS 17, I HAD IT DOWN COLD.’

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