Tony Finau’s Masters debut in April was quite the splash, and not quite the way he envisioned it. If you didn’t know him as a PGA Tour winner, or as a prodigious striker of the ball, or even as the only player on tour of Tongan-Samoan descent, then you might have heard about him for a dislocated ankle.
Yes, an ankle malfunction put Finau on the map this April, just before the Masters officially started. Celebrating a hole-in-one during the Masters Par 3 contest, he dislocated the ankle while try to run backwards toward the green. And there he was, shoving the ankle back into place to the excruciating groans rather unfortunate to see. Remarkably, with his ability to play severely in question, he shot 68 in the first round and finished tied 10th for the tournament.
He’s at Shinnecock Hills this week, playing in his third U.S. Open, and the ankle is just fine. After playing a practice round on Monday he signed a slew of autographs, some for people who even know who he is now.
“Ankle is great,” he said with his omnipresent smile. “It was kind of crazy how it happened, but maybe a blessing in disguise. A lot more people, a lot more, seem to know me now, so I don’t mind it all.”
That Finau is at Shinnecock, that he’s playing PGA Tour golf, is a long, poignant and pretty unexpected story. The son of immigrant parents from the South Seas islands of Samoa and Tonga, he was raised in a hardscrabble neighborhood of Salt Lake City. His father Kelepi, looking for something for his boys to do, knew that his wife, Ravena, had cousins who had played some.
He took Tony and his younger brother Gipper to a nearby par-3 course and driving range. Money was tight, second- or third-hand clubs were the norm, and because they couldn’t keep shelling out precious dollars for a bucket of balls, Kelepi hung a mattress in his garage and the boys beat balls into it throughout the winter.
Tony’s talent blossomed, as did his reputation for hitting it miles. His 6-4 body was coiled steel, and he could unleash drives well over 300 yards as a teen. He turned pro at 17, a family decision based on an offer from a gambling acquaintance to put up money for Tony and Gipper to play in the Ulitmate Game in Las Vegas, a short-lived winner-take-all event with a $2,000,000 first prize. While he didn’t win it, Finau made enough money through the qualifier to finally have a bankroll. That was in 2007.
It took a while to finally get to the PGA Tour full-time in 2015, on his sixth attempt at the qualifying school.
“Definitely some bumps, it was a tough road that I took turning pro at such a young age, but I look at it and there is nothing else I would rather have done,” said Finau. “It was a long tough road, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I learned how to play, I learned how to travel and I was playing golf for a living, which was my dream.”
A dream that even allowed him to dislocate his ankle at the Masters, and smile about it.