Straight From The Bush: 'His time is the best time': Professional golfer Tony Finau on faith
The Finau Family
Tony Finau started playing golf in the 1990s when pictures of Tiger Woods graced the Wheaties boxes in the grocery store and knew that one day, he wanted to play like that.
But decades later when Tony was invited to join Woods on the golf course, the Utah native had to ask for a raincheck — Alayna Finau, Tony's wife, was expecting their fourth child any day now. And because the tee time with Woods was so close to the date, Tony didn't think he could risk it.
Tony Finau on the golf course
Three weeks later, though, Tony had canceled several additional engagements and the baby still hadn’t come.
“I could tell he was stressing a little, but he does a good job of not showing it,” Alayna Finau said.
Well past her due date, Alayna Finau opted for induced labor. With Tony scheduled for a Pro-Am the next day, followed by a tournament the day after that, the timing would be tight. But if he booked a late flight, they thought he could be there for the delivery and also make it to his other commitments.
Hours later, though, Alayna Finau was worried — the baby was still a long ways from coming, and golf protocol expected days of advance notice if an athlete was going to cancel an event.
“‘Tony, you should just go,’” she remembers saying.
But he wasn’t having it.
“I’ll just stay,” he replied.
Minutes turned into hours and the night wore on as they waited for their son to be born. Tony’s flight came and went. He scheduled another. It also took off without him. Since there were no remaining direct flights, they knew he wouldn’t make it to the Pro-Am on time.
But then finally, their son came — a magnificent, squirming baby boy with brown eyes and tufts of dark hair. The wait had been worth it.
Tony had one last resort, too. A local company owned a private jet, and he was in need of a favor. Boarding just after 11 p.m., he flew across the country and arrived hours before he was set to play.
“That’s a memory that I really appreciate because he stayed with me the whole time,” said Alayna Finau. “He’s a really good dad that makes a lot of time for all of us. Not just the kids, but for me, too.”
Tony recently finished his third season on the PGA Tour and currently ranks 19th in the FedEx Cup standings. The athlete also placed 49th in the world ranking this year, making him eligible for most PGA Tour events and all four major golf tournaments in 2018.
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Tony is the first Tongan and Samoan athlete to compete on the PGA Tour and represents his faith and culture while on the green. When he isn’t competing, Tony is also busy raising his four children, practicing golf and running the Tony Finau Foundation, which aims to give back to the local community.
“It’s really an honor for me to represent my people at the level that I am. I think the Polynesian people and the gospel are in harmony,” Tony said. “We’re very respectful people, and very humble people … and I try and let that shine through as much as possible.”
Originally from Rose Park in Salt Lake City, Tony started playing golf as an 8-year-old. Inspired by the success of his younger brother Gipper Finau with the sport, Tony asked his dad if he could give it a shot, too.
Soon, both brothers were practicing in their garage and at the par-3 golf course near their home, using equipment purchased from thrift stores while their dad acted as coach.
“We didn’t come from … money or anything, so we couldn’t pay for a coach or anything like that,” Tony said. “Golf is a super expensive sport, so I still remember going to the DI and getting clubs, stuff like that.”
Over the following nine years, Tony became the junior world golf champion and the Utah State Amateur champion.
Rise to the top
In 2007, 17-year-old Tony was awarded $100,000 in tournament winnings and had a sponsor who would financially support him if he turned pro. According to ESPN, the teenager was also offered a full golf scholarship from UNLV and BYU at the time — both good options for the aspiring golfer.
It didn’t take long for Tony to know which path he wanted to take, though. Mulling it over for just 30 minutes, he said that turning professional just felt right.
“It was a family decision, but I just put faith and trust in the Lord,” he said. “Essentially, my parents directed me in the right path,” he added, noting that they had been fasting and praying about the opportunity. “They were all for me turning professional and starting that journey as a family with my golf career.”
During the next seven years, the athlete competed on the mini tours before being admitted to larger tournaments like the PGA Tour and the U.S. and British Opens. Now, Tony is famous for his length off the tee and was ranked tenth for driving distance on the Tour this season. He’s also noted for breaking golf stereotypes, opting for casual slacks and a flat-billed hat over more traditional wear while competing.
But when colleagues hear that Tony is LDS, they’re often surprised.
Mormon on the green
“I hear people say things like, ‘Oh, wow, I wouldn’t think that you’re a member or Mormon, or anything like that. Some people hear different things about Mormons and what we do, what we believe,” he said. “So, I think it’s a compliment to me.
”The Word of Wisdom, a law of health in the LDS faith prohibiting the use of alcohol and tobacco, has made Tony stand out in his professional career.
“I made that decision a really long time ago that [alcohol] was not for me,” said Tony. “I think people look at it as, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re not having fun.’ But I think it’s really cool you can have fun without being intoxicated by anything … understanding the Word of Wisdom, knowing why that’s in place and believing in latter-day revelation as a Mormon has been everything to me.
”Whether he’s on the road or at home, Tony practices golf six to eight hours a day, treating the sport like a full-time job — and that doesn’t include extra time at the gym.
“I want to try and have as long a career as possible,” he said. “That’s only going to happen if I take care of my body now. … My church teaches me the same thing with the Word of Wisdom, that you have to be healthy, you have to take care of yourself and take care of your body.
”Being on tour can conflict with Tony’s church attendance and the amount of time he gets to spend at home, though.
“I don’t really get to attend church. That’s definitely one of the challenges,” he said. “I’m always playing on Sunday and that’s tough because I really never get to take the sacrament — maybe once every three or four months when I’m home and have a week off.
”But on Sundays, the final day of the tournament, in addition to his habit of praying before playing, the golfer always makes sure to put on his green in honor of his mother, Ravena, who passed away due to a car accident in 2011.
“A lot of guys will just wear the same socks, wear the same glove, or shoes,” he said. “But just saying my prayer before I play is extremely important to me … and wearing my green on Sunday, pretty much you can bet on that.”
A dad and a golfer
During golfing season, Tony's wife and children sometimes travel with him to watch him play. But with four kids under the age of 5, touring together isn’t always practical. So, the golfer typically relies on FaceTime to communicate with his family after a day of competing.
“I think the biggest challenge when I’m on the road is being away from my family,” said Tony. “I always had parents who were there for me, and they would … teach me the basic principles of the gospel, really through example more than anything else. I don’t have as much time with my children as I’d like.”
When her husband is away, Alayna Finau brings her children to church by herself, getting them ready hours beforehand to make sure everyone is on time for services. Additionally, her extended family also attends her congregation and helps her during sacrament meeting.
In the past few years, Tony has also launched a charitable organization, the Tony Finau Foundation, which he created in behalf of his mother.
“She is a big reason why I have the desire to give back. … I’ve learned so much from her,” Tony said. “And to love and give back to my community is something she definitely would have wanted me to do.”
Tony stated that his humble beginnings have motivated him to help others who may be struggling to rise above their situation.
“I feel like I knew what it was like, and if I had the opportunity to ever give back and help that, I would,” he said. “I don’t think it’s ever too early to start helping, and I finally got on tour, so I felt like I was in that position.”
The golfer stated that the foundation was formed not only to contribute to the community financially, but to help underprivileged youths realize their potential.
“A lot of us are raised in different circumstances, but that should never hold us back from doing what we feel like we can accomplish,” Tony said.
Kelepi Finau, Tony’s father, is president of the foundation and runs fundraising events, including an annual tournament and luau that was held in September this year. According to Tony, proceeds will go not only toward the local community, but toward a future golf academy, as well.
“That is our long-term goal, to have a golf academy and teach kids not only about the game of golf, but what it teaches you: integrity and honesty,” Tony said. “Those are all attributes that you need in your life, not just in golf.”
Tony said that his faith in God has helped him navigate both the successes and lows he has experienced during his golfing career.
“I’ve learned that everything is in God’s timing,” he said. “In 2011, I feel like I was playing some of the best golf that I’ve played as far as my professional career. Things were on the up and up. I got to the second stage of the qualifying. And between the second stage and the final stage was when my mom passed away.
“It was just really, really tough on me. … But now that I look back, I wouldn’t have been ready to take on the task that I’m still trying my best to take on right now. … He understands us individually and he knows what’s best for us, even more so than I feel like we do ourselves.”
Additionally, Tony said his trials have given him a deeper and more personal relationship with God.
“I learned so much about myself, so much about the Lord and really just how good he is,” he said. “It’s been a testimony to me of how much more patient I have to be with the Lord. … I’ve learned that the blessing is going to come in his time, and his time is the best time.”