Column: No joke – a Samoan walks onto a golf course and …
SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) The family business, at least on the athletic side of the Finau family, was pro football or basketball.
Tony Finau, all 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds of him, was determined to play golf.
So if nothing else, his play Saturday was further validation of a story that begins with two poor kids learning to play the game by banging balls against a mattress in their garage and one of them winding up with a shot at a major title on the final day of the PGA Championship.
”It was a tough finish, I’ve got to be sharper,” Finau (FEE-now) said after bogeying the final two holes at Whistling Straits for a 69 that left him at 10 under, five strokes off the pace set by leader Jason Day. ”But I also learned a lot.
”I learned I can play in this kind of environment, that I can control my emotions in contention at a major. … I’m five shots back and a lot of really good guys ahead of me. But at least,” he added, brightening, ”I’m still in the conversation for tomorrow.”
Growing up in Salt Lake City of mixed Tongan and American Samoan descent, Finau looked more like a candidate to follow second cousin Jabari Parker into hoops and maybe someday, the NBA. And he had more than one Division I suitor tossing scholarship offers his way.
The other option was to pack more pounds onto that lean frame and try to catch the same express train that another cousin, longtime Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata of the Detroit Lions, rode all the way to the NFL.
The story of how the 25-year-old wound up on PGA Tour instead is a beauty.
”We lived in a tough neighborhood and we didn’t know a thing about golf,” said his father, Kelepi, one of seven family members at the course this week. ”The idea was to find something that would keep Tony and Gipper (11 months younger) out of trouble. They’re the middle two of our seven kids and we already had a few others playing team sports. But they were passionate about it right away.
”And,” he added, ”they were both pretty good right away.”
It was Kelepi, who worked in the cargo depot at the Salt Lake City airport, who went to the library and picked up a copy of Jack Nicklaus’ book, ”Golf My Way” and taped pictures of the Golden Bear’s swing sequence to the walls of the garage. Because the family couldn’t afford too many buckets of balls at the local driving range, he propped up mattresses against the door and put down strips of carpet to hit off so his sons could practice as long as they wanted.
”It was all they wanted to do,” Kelepi laughed. ”I don’t think it was until Tony was 15 or 16, when he made it out of state qualifying in the junior PGA events, that I started to believe `Hey, maybe he really does have the ability.”’
Along the way, there were stops at the ”Ultimate Game,” a $50,000 ante-up-front competition in Las Vegas where Lee Trevino first saw both Finaus crash drives in the very exclusive neighborhood of 400 yards. And then a successful cameo on ”The Big Break,” Golf Channel’s reality TV show, which Tony lost in the final with a PGA tournament invite at the end of the rainbow.
But there were tough times, too: Turning pro at 17 (Gipper did so at 16) in hopes of making some badly needed cash in quickly. A handful of tries and misses at the tour’s Q-school. A car crash that took his mother’s life and left Finau with an ulcer, but only deepened his resolve. Seven years of beating the bushes on a variety of minor-league golf circuits, with a growing family back home to feed.
Finau finally made it to the big leagues this year and he’s made plenty of every opportunity: four top-10 finishes, highlighted by a pair of seventh-place ties and a tie for eighth at the Memorial. He was two shots off the lead heading into the weekend at the U.S. Open, his first-ever major, and wound up in a tie for 14th.
”I think that was the one that made the difference,” recalled caddie Greg Bodine. ”Tony told me then he already knew he could stack up on normal tour courses. Once he played Chambers Bay, he knew he could stack up on places like this, too.”
A long putt away from the scoring trailer, Kelepi Finau leaned against a fence and waited for his son to emerge.
”For us to be out here is something else,” he began, his voice softening. ”It’s unfortunate his mother never got to see this, but green was her favorite color and he’ll be wearing it tomorrow.”
He paused. ”He once told me every time the wind blows, he feels his mom is with him.”
Here’s hoping the wind blows strong and steady the entire final day.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at http://www.twitter.com/JimLitke