Tony Finau takes a most improbable journey to Ryder Cup

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Tony Finau of the US tees off on the 9th hole during a practice round for the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France from Sept. 28-30, 201

Tony Finau of the US tees off on the 9th hole during a practice round for the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France from Sept. 28-30, 201 (Photo: Alastair Grant)

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France (AP) — Tony Finau never forgot that first set of free clubs.

For a family that scrimped on every dime so he'd have a chance to play golf, it really was a big deal.

Never mind that it wasn't even a complete set.

"I think it was only about 4-iron or 5-iron down to pitching wedge," Finau recalled with a smile. "I used those pretty much all the way through high school."

Finau will have a proper set when he tees off Friday in his first Ryder Cup.

But pretty much everything else about this 29-year-old American sets him apart from his teammates.

Golf has always been an upper-class sport, played by those who can afford the hefty green fees and expensive lessons, who have the means to get on the best courses, not to mention the ample time it takes to develop a top player.

But every now and then a player such as Finau comes along, defying all barriers and stereotypes.

A kid of Tongan and Samoan descent, he grew up in a working-class family in Salt Lake City, Utah, part of a close-knit family with a bunch of brothers and sisters, and parents who made sure he didn't slide into the wrong crowd.

His father was a good athlete but didn't know the first thing about golf.

"You name the sport, my dad played it. He did track, basketball, football, rugby, cricket, racquets — any other sport, he did it," said Tony's sister, Nola, who is part of the hefty contingent that has essentially turned Le Golf National into a Finau family reunion. "But golf? He was kind of like, 'Is golf a sport?' It took a lot of studying to learn about it."

Tony certainly understands what it means for a person of color to make it on one of golf's biggest stages. He'll be in the very first match of fourballs, teaming with three-time major champion Brooks Koepka to face Justin Rose and Jon Rahm.

"I'm really proud, just seeing a lot of the kids that have been inspired by me," he said. "There's a lot of great athletes all over the world, and some of them don't have the access or opportunity to play the game of golf."

Finau could've been one of those kids.

His mom and dad made sure he wasn't.

"My parents sacrificed a lot for me to be in this position," he said. "Golf is an extremely expensive sport, and growing up, I didn't come from a lot, but my parents sacrificed a lot for me to compete, and my goals were their goals."

He took up the sport when he was 8, though basketball or volleyball seemed his most likely paths to athletic fame.

Tony Finau of the US is watched by Bubba Watson of the US as he plays from the 9th tee during a practice round at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France from
Tony Finau of the US is watched by Bubba Watson of the US as he plays from the 9th tee during a practice round at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France from
Tony Finau of the US, right, and Dustin Johnson chip out of a bunker during a practice round for the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France fr
Tony Finau of the US, right, and Dustin Johnson chip out of a bunker during a practice round for the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France fr
Tony Finau of the US plays a shot from the 7th tee during a practice round for the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France from Sept. 28-30
Tony Finau of the US plays a shot from the 7th tee during a practice round for the 2018 Ryder Cup at Le Golf National in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, outside Paris, France, Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018. The 42nd Ryder Cup will be held in France from Sept. 28-30

His father scrimped together some clubs for Tony and younger brother Gipper to use, collected from pawn shops and garage sales and anywhere else he could get them on the cheap.

By 2006, Tony was the Utah state amateur champion. Though he received scholarship offers to play college basketball — he's a cousin of Jabari Parker — Finau decided that golf was his real passion. He turned pro and embarked on the hardscrabble life of a mini-tour player. It wasn't easy, especially after he got married and had the first of his four children. Money was tight, and he was hardly an overnight sensation. It took six attempts just to qualify for the second-tier Web.com Tour.

"Those six years were tough," Finau said. "Mini-tour life isn't a glamorous professional golf life. If you're not on the PGA Tour, it is very tough financially."

Of course, he was used to the struggle.

Once he broke through, there was no stopping him.

Finau earned his PGA Tour card in 2014 and by the following summer, he was contending on the weekend at the PGA Championship. This year, he dislocated his ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one at the Par 3 Contest preceding the Masters, then hobbled for four days to a remarkable 10th-place showing at Augusta National. He was fifth at the U.S. Open, and turned in another top-10 finish at the British Open. That propelled him to a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which will be defending the title it won two years ago at Hazeltine.

The day he made the team, Finau did a traditional Polynesian dance at a luau put on by his foundation.

"I'm pretty good with the sticks," he quipped.

He's not too bad with the clubs, either.

At 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, Finau certainly cuts an imposing figure out on the course.

"He's a big talent," said NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, who lives in Utah and has known Finau since he was a junior. "He's got one of the top three best bodies on tour, tall and limber."

Finau's mother didn't get a chance to see her son's success. She was killed seven years ago in a car wreck.

But Nola has no doubt that their mom's presence made the trip across the Atlantic.

"My mom was Tony's biggest fan," she said. "Even more so now; it's kind of like having a guardian angel. Tony is where he is because our mom is helping on the other side."

And that first set of clubs?

Yep, they're still around.

"My dad has them in his garage," Finau said, no doubt a bit sentimental about a modest collection that helped him on this most improbable of journeys.

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