Pro golfer Tony Finau is a regular figure in sports news. His fans around the world, and in his home community of Rose Park, eagerly root for him as he often competes for first place on many suspense-filled last days of major tournaments. Ranked 16th in the world at the end of 2019, Finau makes the cut in more than three-fourths of the tournaments he enters, and has finished in the top 10 in six of his last nine major starts.
His name is famous throughout the world, but the roots of his glamorous career grew deep under the tall trees of modest Rose Park Golf Course along wet, natural river-bottom land on Salt Lake City’s West Side.
Milton Pouha “Tony” Finau and his younger brother Kelepi Jr. “Gipper” Finau grew up as teammates, commuting through morning mists and seagulls on the course to the old Northwest Middle School (now Salt Lake Center for Science Education) on Goodwin Avenue. They developed their golf skills after class under the eyes of municipal crews who were cutting holes, filling washers, running mowers, and maintaining golf carts.
Tony and Gipper knew Rose Parks’s golf courses very well. “[Their dad] would often be out there with them on the chipping green, emphasizing form,” said Lisa Imamura, who worked at the Rose Park clubhouse from 2000 to 2010.
The brothers were part of a supportive family. Their late mother, Ravena Finau, was a physical education teacher at nearby Backman Elementary, where they went to school. Their father, Kelepi Finau, spent countless hours helping them hone their skills, even setting up a mattress on the wall of their tract house garage for the boys to practice their golf swings.
Kelepi said that while “most Polynesian boys grow up to play football or rugby, “My wife, Vena, and I asked ourselves, ‘Is there anything else we can get them involved with – something that will teach them good principles and habits and keep them out of trouble?'”
That brought them to the game of golf. "Both Gipper and Tony started showing potential when they were seven and eight years old,” said Kelepi. Gipper started golfing first, but Tony learned alongside him. “They were so little!” said Imamura.
As teens, the Finau brothers joined West High School’s golf team, which took the Utah State Championship in 2006. That same year, 16-year-old Gipper became the third youngest player to make the cut in the PGA Nationwide Tour, and Tony won the Utah State Amateur Championship, turning professional in 2007 at age 17.
Tony competed in the Junior Ryder Cup tournament in 2004 and 2006. Imamura recalls that “the boys delighted in showing us their ‘swag’ from the Junior Ryder Cup in the clubhouse.
With its distant views of sun-bleached Ensign Peak and the rising snow-capped Wasatch Mountains, “Rose Park was the home course for West High’s golf team,” said Imamura. “That team produced players like Cory MacIntosh, Henry White, and Wayne Fisher over the previous thirty years,” she said.
“The golf team would start gathering in August, then play through September and October. Students were responsible for getting to the course themselves. They would show up at 1 p.m. and shoot 18 holes before dark, which fell earlier and earlier as winter approached,” said Imamura.
Intrasquad competition was intense. “Only eight students per school could play the next match at various home courses,” she said. “Eight to ten schools could be involved at regional tournaments,” said Imamura. That could mean as many as 80 student athletes on the links.
Imamura closely followed The Big Break TV show during 2009 when Gipper made it to the ninth week and Tony fought for the championship all the way to a nineteenth hole showdown and took second place. “The whole Rose Park Golf Course community shared the excitement,” she said. “We watched every episode and celebrated their achievements.”
Tony made new friends with his success. “We were thrilled when he brought Utah Jazz basketball players to golf here at Rose Park,” said Imamura, “...like Kyle Korver and Deron Williams.” But, that success did not come easy.
Kelepi said that it was hard at first for Gipper and Tony to feel like they belonged in the predominantly white sport. He told them, “Let people judge you by how hard you work and what you achieve.” "Over the years we taught our boys that with the principles of gratitude and hard work, they can overcome many hurdles in life,” he said.
Tony’s mother, Vena, who set an example for her children by volunteering for the student Polynesian Club at West High School, said to Tony, “‘If you ever make it, you need to give back to the youth in your community,’” said Kelepi.
Tony has made it – big. According to Golf Magazine, he has earned over $20 million in PGA Tour events. And he honors his mother’s wishes by donating to his hometown neighborhood through the Tony Finau Foundation.
In 2014, when Heather Newell began her tenure as Principal of Backman Elementary, the Tony Finau Foundation reached out to her and asked what they could do for the school. “Over the years they have been extraordinary partners with Backman in various projects,” said Newell.
Recently, the foundation has partnered with the ongoing “For the Kids” project that helps make up for interrupted school nutrition programs during the Coronavirus pandemic. “They supply 500 meals per week for students and families in four local schools,” said Newell.
The foundation gave $100,000 to Intermountain Healthcare for their Project Protect –a partnership between IHC, UofU Health, Latter-day Saint Charities, Utah nonprofits and volunteer sewers to manufacture Personal Protective Equipment for frontline caregivers in response to the pandemic.
Backman Elementary students love it when Tony visits in person. “Tony is not one for the limelight,” says Newell, “He prefers personal conversations in classrooms, and really shines in small groups. He knows that he is a role model for the kids.”
In addition to organizing food, toy and clothing drives and purchasing essential equipment for the school, the Finau Foundation has been a long-term partner in the planned construction of a pedestrian bridge and children’s learning park directly across the Jordan River from Backman Elementary. Not only will children living in the crowded economy apartments along Redwood Road have a more direct and safer route to school, but they will be able to study in the beauty of the river’s natural wildlife corridor.
Construction of this bridge and educational annex is due to start in the spring of 2021, weather permitting, and proponents of this project suggest naming the bridge after Backman’s own Davena Finau, who died in a car accident during 2011.