Check out what has been happening in Utah Golf.
Tony Finau is GOLFWEEK Cover Boy
By Adam Schupak
St. Simons Island, Ga.
Callaway executive Nick Raffaele has not forgotten a 2007 phone call from Lee Trevino nor the sequence of events that followed.
“He said, ‘I just saw a couple of kids play golf this week, and you ought to get on a plane and go see them,’ ” said Raffaele, Callaway’s vice president of sports marketing.“ ‘When you play with them, you’ll know what I’m talking about.’ ”
Trevino raved about two Tongan-Samoan-American teenage brothers from Utah who could smash a golf ball. He had seen them in Las Vegas while doing commentary for “The Ultimate Game,” a $2 million made-for-TV event in which the Finau brothers – Tony, then 17, and Gipper, 11 months younger – had turned pro.
“Tony drove it on the edge of the green, nearly 400 yards,” Trevino said. “Power and speed. You can’t teach that.”
Raffaele soon flew to Salt Lake City and, during a nine-hole audition, knew he had stumbled upon that rarest of commodities.
“I had never seen kids hit the ball as far and have soft touch around the green as they had,” he said.
Next, the Finau (FEE-now) brothers flew to Carlsbad, Calif., and performed for Callaway executives. Tony broke 200-mph ball speed. Jaws dropped. When their agent demanded a seven-figure endorsement deal, Raffaele passed.
“I made a few predictions with their father and agent,” Raffaele said. “I said, ‘Time is the ultimate scoreboard.’ I told them I’ve been doing this a while, and it would take seven years for one of them to make it to the Tour.”
Fast-forward seven years, and Raffaele’s words proved prescient. Tony, 25, earned a promotion after finishing eighth on the Web.com Tour money list. In five fall starts to his rookie campaign, Finau has four finishes of seventh to 14th, suggesting a promising future. But the story of how he got here is every bit as good as what may be still to come.
Gipper, then 5 and enthralled by golfers on TV, motivated his mother, Ravena, to ask her husband to teach the boys the game. Lessons and buckets of balls were beyond the family’s means, so Kelepi, who worked in cargo at Delta Air Lines, checked out instructional books and videotapes at the library. “Golf My Way” by Jack Nicklaus became his bible, and he plastered frame-by-frame images of the Golden Bear’s swing to their garage walls. Sets were purchased at Salvation Army. The boys blasted balls off carpet into a mattress. It wasn’t long before they ripped through a blanket that hung as a target and replaced it with a net. They could chip and stroke putts at a nearby par-3 course for free, which is why the brothers learned to play from the green back to the tee. Only when they could shoot par on the short course did they graduate to a regulation-length course, Rose Park, in Salt Lake City. Tony says he was 9 when he first hit a driver.
“It shocked me that they drove it so far,” their father said, “because that was the club they used the least.”
Mark Whetzel, director of golf at Thanksgiving Point, recognized their raw talent and gave them a place to play.
“Gip was the ‘superstar’ at the time,” Whetzel said. “He was the one turning heads and being called the next Tiger.”
Tony didn’t beat his brother in competition until 2004, the year he earned a Junior Ryder Cup team spot. He was set to accept a scholarship from BYU when Dieter Esch, a golf enthusiast and owner of Wilhelmina Models, offered to pay the $50,000 entry fee for each brother into The Ultimate Game. The family accepted.
Tony advanced to the 36-hole final and netted $100,000. He made a cut on Tour that same year, when as a 17-year-old he led the U.S. Bank Championship field in driving distance with a 331.6-yard average.
But as a pro, the 6-foot-4-inch, 200-pound Finau learned he couldn’t simply overpower a golf course. Once the sponsor invites disappeared, Esch called Raffaele, who offered the brothers a more modest three-year deal.
“I treated them as if I had drafted a couple of high school pitchers,” Raffaele said.
Soon Tony was revamping his swing with instructor David Leadbetter. He failed to advance through second stage of PGA Tour Q-School five times, and doubt crept in.
“Some of the years I was on the mini-tours, yeah, I asked myself, Am I good enough or not? ” he said.
His biggest setback left him disconsolate. On the way home from a wedding over Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, Finau’s sister was at the wheel when the car flipped and Ravena, the backbone of the family, was killed near Elko, Nev. Gipper, who like Tony was not in the car, needed a year off from golf. Though Gipper still beats his brother regularly, he failed to advance through first stage of Q-School this year.
They say the heart of a man is measured in times of strife. Losing his mother deepened Finau’s resolve. He resumed working with his father, found his old groove and regained his assurance.
Former football coach June Jones helped raise money to keep Finau afloat on the mini-tours. He learned to compete in front of the cameras on Golf Channel’s “Big Break” in 2009, then played on the Grey Goose Gateway Tour and won on the National Pro Golf Tour.
The education of Finau into a world-class golfer required one more seminal moment: learning to harness his power.
“It was the hardest thing for me because I always felt that my length was my advantage,” he said. “I had to learn how to use my length. There are golf courses where I can use my length and others where I don’t even need it. I have a lot of different gears. I can hit a 300-yard driver with a little fade, and I can hit a high draw 375 yards. When I need it, it’s there.”
A boldness sparked in his eyes when Finau was asked whether anyone, even Bubba Watson, is longer.
“I really don’t believe when I step on one that anybody can hit one farther,” said Finau, a half-smile parting his lips.
He notes that he wouldn’t be where he is today had he not switched to a cross-handed putting grip shortly before Web.com Tour Q-School in September 2013. His putter wakened, and Finau tied for third. Raffaele waited by the 18th green with congratulations, then called Trevino to say the kid was one step closer to his dream.
“Nothing has been sweeter than having some of the older execs who were there that day stop me in the hall and say, ‘You were dead right,’ ”Raffaele said.
In August, Finau won the Web.com Tour’s Stonebrae Classic. When he secured his card three weeks later at the final regular-season event, his family drove 10 hours to Portland, Ore., to celebrate and placed leis made of miniature packages of Snickers, M&Ms and Twix bars around the necks of Finau and each graduate.
Asked whether he thought it would take this long to reach the big leagues, Finau smiled.
“Thinking back, if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have thought this long, but I’m glad that it did,” he said. “I feel my game is very polished. I learned a lot. And now I’m on the PGA Tour, so it was all worth it.”
He kept repeating the phrase – “Now I’m on the PGA Tour” – trying it on like a new sport coat.
So far, it fits very well.