PGA Tour

With Polynesian pride, Finau beats the odds on PGA Tour

Tony Finau (AP)
Tony Finau (AP)

Shanghai - Polynesians are known for playing rugby, not golf, and Tony Finau is such a rarity on the PGA Tour that, as he puts it: "I shouldn't be here."

Finau, of Samoan-Tongan heritage, is the first Polynesian on the top US tour, but that's not the only hurdle he overcame to become one of golf's most unlikely rising stars.

Finau's family couldn't afford to use their local driving range in Salt Lake City, Utah, so his dad Kelepi hung up mattresses in their garage for his boys to pound balls into, teaching them the game from books checked out from the local library.

"I love being Polynesian and take a lot of pride in being Polynesian," Finau, 29, told AFP after surging into the halfway lead at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

"There is nobody in our Polynesian culture that has ever played this game. So I don't really have anyone to look up to as far as being Polynesian and doing something so different from what we are used to."

"I feel like its kind of an 'all odds against me' story. I shouldn't be here in this position."

But Finau has proven he belongs.

Unlike many top US golfers, he didn't play collegiately, turning pro after high school and struggling for years as a journeyman.

"I'm a very positive, enthusiastic person and I think you have to be if you're going to be a journeyman in this game and, really, in life," he said.

But he had 11 top-10 finishes in 2018, including at three majors, and was a rare bright spot for the USA as a captain's pick in the crushing Ryder Cup defeat to Europe.

The lithe 1.93-m (6-foot-3) Finau has combined booming drives and a lethal putter at the WGC-HSBC Champions, which he hopes to add to his sole PGA win so far, the 2016 Puerto Rico Open.

Many remember Finau mostly for dislocating his ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one in the par-3 contest at this year's Masters.

Finau calmly popped it back into place and played the full four days on the swollen joint, finishing tied for 10th in his first Masters.

A devoted husband and father of four who exudes chilled-out humility, Finau also might be one of the easiest golfers to root for.

At the Ryder Cup, he was asked: with all his golf success, which life experience had given him the most confidence? His answer: marrying his wife, Alayna.

"I love playing with him," said defending HSBC champion Justin Rose, the world number three, who tees off Saturday with Finau and reigning Masters champ Patrick Reed.

"He's such a great dude, and such an awesome talent."

For that, Finau thanks the tight-knit Mormon clan headed by his dad, Kelepi, who was born in Tonga.

Kelepi worked as an airport employee in Tony's youth, so the Finaus were hardly of the country-club set.

But when Tony, then seven, watched 21-year-old Tiger Woods's thrilling first Masters win on TV in 1997, he was hooked.

"We lived near a par-3 public course. Basically we learned how to chip and putt, we knew you could do that for free," he said.

"The whole garage and mattress thing was because we couldn't afford to play and couldn't afford to hit balls. So we would hit indoors and chip outdoors."

"You have to work hard and you have to work smart. Those are things my dad taught me and he was there with me every step of the way."

The family was rocked in 2011 by the death of Tony's mother Ravena in a car accident, but she remains a guiding force.

"Sacrificing as much as she and my dad did, its pretty inspiring for me. So I just feel like I'm not doing her justice if I don't do my best and just work hard and be the person that I know she raised me to be," Finau said.



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