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.