Big-hitting Tony Finau, 26, is having a huge rookie year on Tour. Nerves? Not a problem — unless a guy named Nicklaus is watching.
You’re in the midst of your first full year on the PGA Tour, and you’ve already amassed nearly $2 million in winnings. You also qualified for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and had a great showing, tying for 14th. That’s quite a performance in your first major.
Yeah, for sure. To be able to qualify for that tournament was a dream come true. And not only to play in it, but to play well.
How different does a major feel, compared with the week-to-week vibe on Tour?
There are a lot more people. Everything’s just bigger and better. The way they set up the golf course is a lot tougher. But I enjoyed it. I really soaked it up and was able to feed off the energy. I think it’s just more support, more people that love the game at its highest level. And I really use that as positive energy, so it was pretty cool.
You’ve already played 27 events this season. That’s quite a full schedule.
It’s a lot of golf. But I’m in a different situation than a lot of guys. I’m married with three kids, so balancing is a big part of [my schedule], making sure I see my kids enough and trying to be a family man. Because for me, that’s first, even before my golf career. But as a rookie, I need to play a lot. I need to know what courses I like and adjust to the atmosphere and the lifestyle of playing at the highest level.
Is there something specific in your game that enabled you to make such a big leap this year—besides driving it 309 yards, on average?
Confidence has been on my side. After four or five years of not making it out here, the confidence can waver a bit. But once I did get my break and got on the Web.com Tour last year, I was able to prove to myself that I belong on the PGA Tour. I won on the Web.com Tour and was able to compete and contend quite a bit, so that gave me a lot of confidence going into this year.
And your confidence must be growing—you’ve had 14 top 25s this year.
You know what’s helped me? I switched to cross-handed putting a couple of years ago, and putting has become a big strength. I think everybody knows I hit it really far. And that’s always a big advantage. But out here, you’ve got to chip it and putt it really well, so I’ve worked really hard to improve my wedges and putting.
You tried to get through Q-School five times before finally making it. How demoralizing was that?
It was tough to fail year after year. I never even got to the final stage until I got my card on the Web.com Tour. But I always believed that I could be something special. I just had to prove it to myself.
You’re 6’4”, 200 pounds. With your athleticism, you could have excelled in a lot of other sports. How did you settle on golf?
I excelled at golf faster than I excelled at basketball. I played national basketball tournaments when I was a kid [in Salt Lake City], and I knew I was pretty good. Could I make it to Division I? Sure. Could I play in the NBA? I don’t know. But I just loved playing golf. I won a Junior World title when I was 12, and to see my name alongside [past champions] Tiger and Ernie and Phil kind of confirmed for me that golf was what I was going to do.
Your Twitter profile picture shows Jack Nicklaus watching you on the range. How did that come about?
At the Memorial this year, I got a text from the tournament director on Monday evening that said, “Jack would like you to be a part of his clinic on Wednesday. Are you willing to do it?” And my heart just about popped out of my chest. I was like, whatever was happening is not happening anymore. I’m there!
You finished in the top 10 that week. Not bad, considering how nerve-racking it must have been to hit balls in front of your idol.
I was more nervous about hitting balls in front of Jack than I was about playing in the event. I was lucky I was hitting driver and that I was just on the range, so I could just close my eyes and launch it. [Laughs]
Did Jack give you any swing tips?
He liked my action. But it was pretty humbling. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, and to be standing next to the greatest player ever and hitting in front of him, and then having him say some good things—that was pretty cool.
Tony Finau’s Three Things I Know for Sure
1. You have to listen
My dad, Kelepi, taught me how to play the game, and he had rules. The first one was to listen. A lot of us think we know it all, so we don’t want to listen. I feel like listening is a huge part of life—not only listening to people, but listening to people that you believe in, people who you think are wise. That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever had.
2. Thinking is an art form
How you think, and how much you think, is so important in golf. There are countless things we can work on and think about in the swing, but when it’s time to play in competition, you don’t want to think too many thoughts. I try to be as visual and simple as possible: See it and hit it. If you just think about one thing when you’re over the ball, it simplifies the game.
3. Make “The Boss” happy
My wife, Alayna, is the most organized person in the family, and if everything runs smoothly on her terms, then life is great. So that’s it. If she’s not having a good day, then most likely I’m not having a good day, and all of our kids aren’t having a good day. But if we do what we’re supposed to, and she’s having a good time—I guess it just goes hand in hand. Whether I play well or not, she’s the backbone of the family.