Finau Powering His Way Up Leader Board

Tony Finau will head into the weekend of his first major championship in contention at Chambers Bay after rounds of 69-68. (USGA/Michael Cohen)
Tony Finau will head into the weekend of his first major championship in contention at Chambers Bay after rounds of 69-68. (USGA/Michael Cohen)

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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – On Tony Finau’s winding road through the professional golf ranks, call the 115th U.S. Open a scenic overlook he has wanted to visit for a long time.

“It’s been quite the journey to get to this point,” Finau said Friday at Chambers Bay, where he shot a second-round 68 to finish 36 holes at 3-under 137 and put himself into contention this weekend. “But it’s what I’ve worked so hard for to get to this point in my career, to have these opportunities playing in these big events. It feels really good.”

Finau’s rookie season on the PGA Tour has been far from routine, despite ranking 53rd on the money list with four top-10 finishes.

The first golfer of Tongan and American Somoan descent to play on the Tour, Finau was a talented golfer and basketball player growing up with his six siblings in Salt Lake City. He is the cousin of Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Jabari Parker and other cousins have played in the National Football League.

Finau is only 25 years old but has been a pro since he was 17, leaving the amateur ranks after high school graduation to play in a $2 million match-play event called the Ultimate Game. Finau didn’t win the big bucks, but after paying back a sponsor he had enough money to begin playing various mini-tours.

He has worked his way up the competitive chain, eventually advancing to the Tour. Finau won the 2014 Stonebrae Classic, finishing eighth on the Tour money list and 12th in the season-ending playoffs to earn a spot on the PGA Tour this season.

Finau has always turned heads with the power he generates from his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame. He is ranked third on the PGA Tour in average driving distance at 307.2 yards and averaged 318.5 yards in the second round of the U.S. Open.

“My length is still the biggest asset to my golf game,” Finau said. “When I’m hitting it straight and finding the fairway with how far I hit it, then I can be really effective.”

He likes Chambers Bay, where his distance is a good weapon.

“It sets up long and firm, so I’ve got the length to attack this course,” Finau said. “I hit the ball really high so I can land it a little softer than most guys. Some of the pins become a little more accessible. It sets up pretty nicely for me.”

Coming off a solid four-tournament stretch highlighted by a tie for eighth place at the Memorial Tournament, Finau’s game was in good shape when he got to Chambers Bay after shooting 66-67 to earn one of four spots in a sectional qualifier in Springfield, Ohio. He first attempted to qualify for the Open when he was a teenager with grand dreams.

“I was pretty anxious to get my first major started,” Finau said. “But as far as expectations, I know I've been playing well, I've had some nice finishes on Tour, which is good leading up to a major. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself but just enjoy the week. If I just have fun and play free, then I’ll be fine – tee it high and hit it far.”

Making a 30-footer for birdie on his last hole Friday wasn’t bad, either.

“To finish that way was really nice,” said Finau, who also had a birdie on his 16th hole after making a double bogey on the previous hole. “I feel I can putt the ball and I can chip the ball. I’ve always been good with my irons. My length just is overshadowing my game because of how far I hit it.”

To polish his game, Finau has been working with instructor Boyd Summerhays. Boyd’s younger brother, Daniel, is a friend of Finau’s who also finished 36 holes here at 3 under, briefly sharing the lead at 5 under. The two faced each other in the final of the 2006 Utah Amateur, with Finau coming out on top.

“Our games are, I would say, not very similar,” Daniel said. “He hits it about 50 yards farther than me.”

Finau hits it longer than almost everybody. And through two rounds of the U.S. Open, he is playing better than almost everybody.

“I’m really proud of Tony and all he’s accomplishing in his rookie year,” Daniel said. “He is way ahead of the curve as far as maturity goes.”

He’ll have a chance to grow up even more the next two days.

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.