With a ker-plunk into the water on Augusta’s notorious 12th Hole Tony Finau went from contender to front-row spectator for one of the biggest sports stories of 2019—Tiger Woods’ miraculous comeback to win the Masters Green Jacket. But until that moment, Finau had Tiger by the tail trailing Woods by one just stroke. In the end, he’d tie for 5th, Finau’s best ever performance in a major tournament and be right there at the moment when the man who inspired him to take up the sport once again dazzled the world.
Not bad for kid from Rose Park.
Most people never would have expected Tony Finau to be battling it out with golf’s upper crust, standing on the 18th at Augusta with golf’s biggest star. Tongans are supposed to play football, right? Finau’s cousin, Haloti Ngata, provided the familial blueprint, growing up in Salt Lake City, making the NFL and earning a Super Bowl ring in 2018 with the Philadelphia Eagles. No person of Tongan descent had ever even qualified for the PGA tour, but after watching a 21-year-old Tiger Woods dominate the 1997 Masters, Finau figured if someone who looked different than the stereotypical golfer could conquer the sport, perhaps he could too.
Finau wasn’t some cookie-cutter prospect who found success after riding an affluent upbringing through the Butch Harmon School of Golf. He honed his game under the tutelage of his father Kelepi—who was not actually a golfer himself. Alongside his younger brother Gipper, Finau would practice swings off of strips of carpet in the family garage and spend endless hours at the municipal golf course’s free practice green on Salt Lake City’s northwest side. When he enrolled at West High, the school didn’t even have a golf team. A year later, he and Gipper brought the school its first state championship.
Finau turned pro after high school, qualified for the tour in 2014, and now he’s firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the PGA Tour with an eye towards the sport’s biggest prizes. In the 2018 U.S. Open he finished the third round with a tidy 66, equaling the lowest score of the day and tying him for the 2018 US Open lead after 54 holes. Though he couldn’t hold off eventual champion Brooks Koepka down the stretch on that Sunday at Shinnecock Hills, Finau’s fifth-place finish matches his solid showing at this years Masters and is part of off a consistently improving game. He certainly got Woods’ attention.
“I mean (gosh) he hits it long,” Woods said in a post-match interview. “He makes a little half swing and still hits the ball 310, 320 in the air. It’s just remarkable. Tony’s made some leaps in the last couple of years. He’s starting to piece together a game that’s going to contend week in and week out out. With his length, it’s such an asset in today’s game that he’ll win multiple tournaments and I’m sure a major championship is definitely in his future.”
But beyond the bright lights of golf’s biggest stage, Finau’s greatest legacy may be how he’s inspired others with his unlikely path. He started the Tony Finau Foundation, which serves underprivileged youth in Salt Lake City and is funded with a percentage of his winnings.
“Tony realized when he made it to the PGA Tour it was the product of a family and community effort,” says Chelsea Fairbourn, Director of Operations for the foundation. “Tony’s goal is to help take care of basic needs, so kids can be kids and focus their energy on the things that matter most to them like academics, art and sports.” Visit the foundation’s website and help Finau inspire more kids from Rose Park to do what he did. tonyfinaufoundation.org