BASH BROTHER: TONY FINAU / 25 / LEHI / UTAHAugust 1, 2015

My Shot: Tony Finau

Golf and the fire-knife dance have left some scars, but Tongan-Samoan Tony Finau has become a top young talent and one of the longest hitters on tour

I’M NO AUTHORITY ON THE PGA TOUR, because I just got here. I'm a Web.com Tour graduate, and it took a while to get to the big show–I'd missed making it through the old Q school five times. I can't get over how nice it is out here. The fact I get a courtesy car every week blows me away. The food is unreal–I love the expression "player dining." It's a long way from the mini-tours, where my big meal of the day was the soup and sandwiches the sponsor put out. It's amazing how we have an assortment of range balls to choose from. I'm addressed correctly as "Mr. FEE-now" more, and "Mr. Fuh-NOO" less. It's a whole new level of respect.

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I'M ONLY 25, but I've been a pro for almost eight years, and I'm starting to understand what it takes on tour. For starters, you can venture a little from who you are as a golfer, but don't mess with your swing DNA too much. Lee Trevino didn't become great by trying to hit high hooks, right? Next, you have to develop some thick skin, because ups and downs are part of the deal. We lose a lot. Next, always match your game to the golf course rather than the other way around. Last, you can't be a crazy excitable person. Getting wildly pumped up and then trying to make good decisions and control your distances is a tough fit.

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WE GREW UP in the Rose Park section of Salt Lake City. It's a good neighborhood but a tough one, on the poor side but proud. Sports are big. You learn to fight. My little brother, Gipper–his given name is Kelepi–and I are only 11 months apart, and he was always the talker. From elementary school on, he'd start trouble with bigger kids, knowing I'd be there to bail him out. He'd talk trash, and when he was ready to get his butt kicked, I'd come in and throw the punches. Then Gipper would move back in and talk more smack to the guy on the ground, like he was the one who just gave the beatdown. He was a pain, but I love the guy. We grew up closer than most twins. Until we were about 21 we played and practiced together, shared the same car, stayed in the same hotels, everything. Gipper is trying hard to get where I am now. I'll always have his back.

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DURING WINTER, my dad hung an old mattress in our little garage. I would hit balls into it from one side, Gipper from the other. The mattress held up OK, but we were always wearing out the little strips of carpet my dad had scrounged up for us to hit off. There was no heater, and it would be about 20 degrees. Gipper and I would go for 90 minutes, go inside to thaw out our hands, then go at it some more. The thumping sound of the balls hitting that mattress is stamped in my mind. Sometimes, when I'm not playing particularly well and need a little motivation, I'll hear that thumping sound. It reminds me of where I came from and the price I've paid to get where I am.

‘Pay it forward a little. It’s good for your karma.’

THE MATTRESS WAS GOOD TRAINING, really. When your hands are cold and you're hitting with old, low-quality irons–my first one was a Merlin model with a green shaft–you learn what to do to hit the ball solid. The strips of carpet were laid on a cement floor, so that taught us not to get too steep and hit down on the ball too much. The rubber grips on the clubs were old and slick, so you needed a sound grip. To help us learn trajectory, my dad spray-painted little dots from high to low on the mattress. And then there was that thumping sound. The louder it was, the better you were hitting it.

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IT'S FUNNY WHAT A LITTLE SIBLING JEALOUSY CAN DO. When I was 7, the TV and news people started coming out to the house to do stories on Gipper. He was sort of a prodigy, beating much older kids in junior tournaments. I envied that attention, so I started playing, too. It took me a couple of years to draw even with Gipper, and longer than that to start beating him once in a while. Gipper's a heckuva player.

WE DIDN'T HAVE CABLE TV. We just couldn't afford it. But you don't need cable to watch the Masters. In 1997, at the exact moment I started out, I watched Tiger Woods win the Masters. The way he fist-pumped, the red shirt, his power compared to the other players, the way he made the fans go crazy, and the rawness of it all seemed larger than life. I thought, I want to be like that. It's impossible to overestimate Tiger's influence on kids like me, or the impact he's had on golf in general. He's an icon, absolutely one of a kind. I think people should go out of their way to be nice to him. I haven't played with Tiger yet or even met him, but when I do, I'm going to thank him

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NEEDLESS TO SAY, the Masters is the tournament I'd like to play in and win the most. I've never seen it in person and wouldn't go even if you gave me tickets, because I made a promise to myself as a kid that I wouldn't go until I played my way there. It's the only tournament I watch on TV, and I watch it all four days. I always wear a green shirt on Sundays, and I have in mind a shade that would go well with a green jacket.

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JORDAN RIVER GOLF COURSE was a little city-owned par-3 layout a couple of blocks from our house. When my parents learned that we could chip and putt there for free, they started letting us hang out there, first Gipper, then me. My dad didn't play golf, but he heard that Tiger learned the game from the green backward, so it sounded perfect. My brother and I hung out there till dark almost every day. At first we just practiced. Green fees weren't much, but they're a lot when you have nothing. When the pro there saw how dedicated we were, he started letting us play for free. We wore that little par 3 out. One day I played it seven times. You don't need an elaborate training ground to get good.

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THE JORDAN RIVER ISN'T SO MUCH A RIVER AS A LARGE, slow-moving canal that flows into the Great Salt Lake. The mud in it is the nastiest stuff you can imagine: black, greasy and stinky. It was home to mosquitoes that would swarm. To this day I never linger over the ball, and I wear tall crew socks–remnants of the Jordan River mosquito days.

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TO THE EVERYDAY GOLFERS OUT THERE: Pick up a kid's green fee when you can. To the starters on the first tee who notice poor kids hanging around: Let them play for free when it's not busy. To the head pros: Don't get on the starters for doing that. To the bosses of the head pros: Don't threaten to fire them for giving the kids a break. To everybody: Pay it forward a little. It's good for your karma.

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GROWING UP, THERE WERE GANGS ALL AROUND US: the Tongan Crip Gang, the Sons of Samoa and a few others that had come up from Los Angeles and formed a presence in Rose Park. A lot of drugs, some crime, and a lot of peer pressure to get into that. Golf saved us. My desire to improve at golf distracted me from a lot of the temptation, but the biggest thing was just hanging out at the golf course. Gangs don't hang out at golf courses. Jordan River Golf Course created a physical barrier between me and that bad element. After Gipper and I began having some success, we gained a certain measure of hands-off respect, where even the bad guys saw we had value as representatives of the Polynesian peoples.

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LIKE GIPPER, MY DAD'S GIVEN NAME IS KELEPI, but he goes by Gary and is an amazing man. One of those guys who is instantly good at anything he tries. Hand my dad a tennis racket, and within an hour he'll beat you. In high school he starred in basketball, baseball, football and track. He even boxed in Golden Gloves. He plays guitar, bass, drums and trumpet. High-level versatility runs in our family, and it's a big extended family. Two of my sisters played Division I volleyball. Two of my cousins played in the NFL, and one of my second-cousins, Jabari Parker, plays for the Milwaukee Bucks. I've met Jabari only once, when he made a recruiting visit to Brigham Young before deciding on Duke. But we follow each other.

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BECAUSE MY DAD DIDN'T PLAY GOLF, he went to the local library and checked out some VHS instruction videos and a copy of Jack Nicklaus' book Golf My Way. He read it closely, and the one thing he harped on was Jack's observation that you can maneuver the ball with just one swing. All you do is adjust your stance and the clubface at address. Keep it simple. My teacher, Boyd Summerhays, and I have gone a little further than that as we refine my swing, but we don't deviate much.

BY THE TIME I WAS 14, I knew the rudiments of golf betting. By the time I was 17, I had it down cold. When I was desperate for cash, I'd get in the car and drive to Las Vegas. There were always some high-rollers ready to put cash up against a few pros. They weren't too wary of me. I'd show up in basketball shorts and T-shirt, no cap. The goofy crew socks. No headcovers on my woods. I wore golf shoes that were inexpensive and a little worn. Being a person of color took care of the rest–ever seen a Tongan-Samoan who could play? I did nothing dishonest at all with handicap strokes; it wasn't necessary. I turned $30 into $500 a lot of times that way.

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MY DAD WAS REALLY GOOD AT EVERYTHING but not awesome at any one thing. With Gipper and me, he felt if we put all our energy into one thing, it could be our ticket out. I played varsity basketball in high school and had scholarship offers in that as well as golf, but even with a full ride, we knew I couldn't make it financially. A scholarship doesn't cover your car, clothes, food or visits home. So in 2007, at 17, I turned pro.

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WHAT REALLY PUSHED THE DECISION along was The Ultimate Game, a made-for-TV event that June at the Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas. It worked like this: There were 40 contestants, each putting up $50,000. After two rounds of match play, the 10 survivors and two guys from the losers' bracket played 36 holes, with the winner getting $2 million. The next nine guys got their $50,000 entry fee back, plus another $50,000. A private sponsor put up the $50,000 and told me to go play. How could I not turn pro? With a decent showing, it would be more money than I ever saw in my life.

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THERE WERE SOME STUDS IN THAT FIELD, a mix of good pros and really good amateurs. Scott Piercy, Kevin Streelman and Spencer Levin were there. I won my first match against an older guy, then drew Rick Rhoden. I had extra incentive to win. My high school graduation was that night, and if I didn't win, I had to stick around to play in a consolation bracket, and that meant missing graduation. I closed Rick out on the 17th hole, flew home and made my graduation, then flew back to Las Vegas for the finals the following week.

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I DIDN'T WIN THE ULTIMATE GAME, but I made enough money to pay back my sponsor, with enough left over to finance some mini-tour stuff. The Ultimate Game was televised on Fox, with Trevino brought in to do some of the commentating. The first hole at Wynn is a 406-yard par 4. Lee was standing near the first tee when I flew my drive just short of the green. [At 6-4 and 200 pounds, Finau averages 307.2 yards off the tee, including drives of 380, 374 and 373 yards.] As I plucked my tee out of the ground, we made eye contact, and Lee gave me this look I'll never forget, and a wink. Later, he took me aside and said, "Son, you can be something at this game."

A short time later, I got a call from Callaway Golf. On Lee's recommendation, they gave me a three-year deal.

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IN 2009, Gipper and I were playing in a Gateway Tour event in Arizona. Next to the range was a tent labeled "The Big Break." We didn't know what "The Big Break" was. It had been going for six years, but remember, we lived in a house with no cable TV. A guy came over and interviewed us and filmed our swings. Three weeks later, the phone rings, and it's Golf Channel, asking if we wanted to appear on the show. We jumped at it, mainly because the winner got a spot in a PGA Tour event. We went down and played. It took two weeks. Gipper finished fourth, and I got to the final against Mike Perez, Pat Perez's brother. It was stroke play, and I led by two shots with two holes to play. The 17th hole was a dogleg-left par 4 with a cartpath running across the fairway. I hit a huge drive, dead center. Perfect. Except it hits that cartpath and takes a huge bounce into water. I made bogey, Mike birdied, and now we're tied. On the first playoff hole, Mike made a 25-footer to win. That was tough for a 20-year-old kid to take. In 15 minutes, I went from playing in that tour event to taking a long plane ride home to Utah.

‘By the time I was 14, I knew the rudiments of golf betting. By the time I was 17, I had it down cold.’

IN THE POLYNESIAN CULTURE, what's mine is yours. If you come to our homes, all that we have is yours while you're there. Back in the islands, life is still pretty rural, and people grow a lot of what they eat. As much as we struggled growing up, we always had good food to eat.

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I MENTION MY DAD A LOT, but my mom, Ravena, was talented, too. When I was young she taught me the fire-knife dance. You connect sharp knives at the end of a long stick, attach some roofing material out by the knives, light the ends on fire and twirl it similar to a baton, and elaborately, while dancing. I did the fire-knife dance until I was 15. The scars you see up and down my arms are from cutting myself with the knives. I had to give that up. One wrong move could end my golf career.

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ON NOV. 27, 2011, we learned my mom had died in a car accident. One of my brothers and a sister were in the same car and were injured. My mom referred to herself as "Mom da bomb" because she was the center of our family. All of us were heartbroken. My brother and sister were moved to a hospital in Salt Lake where, a day later, on Nov. 28, my girlfriend, Alayna–we've since gotten married–gave birth to our son, Jraice, in another part of the hospital. Talk about a range of emotions. A few months later, Alayna was pregnant again. We were living in a $600-per-month apartment, the bills were piling up, and I had no status on any tour. Sitting at our little kitchen table, I thought, Man, this is tough. This is the real deal. A week later, I got my first ulcer. Nothing I'm going to experience on a golf course can match that kind of pressure.

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THAT COURTESY CAR I was bragging about? I lost the keys to it the other day and had to bum a ride back to the hotel. I've clearly got a lot to learn.

–With Guy Yocom