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At 16, Finau well on his way to achieving golf goals

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Tony Finau chips during the Utah State Amateur at Soldier Hollow last month. The 16-year-old West High student went on to beat BYU's Daniel Summerhays.

Tony Finau chips during the Utah State Amateur at Soldier Hollow last month. The 16-year-old West High student went on to beat BYU’s Daniel Summerhays.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News

Unlike most kids who try to emulate their older siblings, Tony Finau got his start in golf because he wanted to be like his little brother.

You see, Gipper Finau started playing golf at the age of 5 after watching Tiger Woods on television. He was so enthralled, he started hitting balls into a net in his garage during the winter. Before he was 7, Gipper was beating adults and winning trophies in 10-and-under division junior golf tournaments.

This got Tony's attention, so at the age of 8, he began playing golf. Within a couple of years, he was as good as his younger brother, and the two became a feared tandem in local junior golf. Partly because of his superior size, Tony has progressed slightly further than his younger brother, although both are among the best in their age groups in the entire country.

Already this month, Finau has played in the Pacific Coast Amateur in California against mostly college-age players, and this past week at the Westfield Junior PGA in Ohio, where he shot a final-round 64 to finish in second place against players up to 18 years of age (Gipper finished in a tie for 19th).

Last month was a very good one for Finau. Early in July, the 16-year-old became one of the youngest winners in Men's State Amateur history. Then later in the month, he shared top honors at the Junior America's Cup in Ogden, featuring top junior golfers from the western United States.

For his excellent play, Finau is the Deseret Morning News Athlete of the Month for July.

At the State Am, playing at Soldier Hollow in Midway, Finau wasn't one of the pre-tournament favorites. Not with the abundance of top collegiate golfers, including two-time champion Daniel Summerhays, U.S. Public Links champion Clay Ogden, former Utah Open champion Greg Buckway and defending State Am champ Michael McRae.

In retrospect, Finau should have been one of the favorites. He had been playing in the State Am since he was 13 and had made it to match play every year since, one of just three players to do so.

However, he almost didn't make it to the first tee.

The weekend before the State Am, Tony and Gipper both came down with walking pneumonia and were even hospitalized for a night.

Tony was released the day before the tournament started and, still wearing his bright green hospital bracelet as he would all week, teed off Wednesday morning.

His first drive went "100 yards to the right," and Finau wondered, "maybe I should just go home." However, he settled down and shot a first-round 73, followed by a 69 to make it into match play.

Once he got into the 32-golfer match play field, Finau was unstoppable. He cruised through his first two matches Friday, then did the same Saturday, defeating 33-year-old John Owen 6 and 5 in the quarterfinals and Southern Utah golfer Nic Van Vuuren 3 and 2 in the afternoon semifinals.

Summerhays had won the State Am two straight years as a teenager and was the favorite in the finals as a 22-year-old seasoned BYU golfer. He got ahead early by two holes, but Finau sank a 40-footer at the ninth hole to gain some needed confidence.

He made four birdies on the back nine and grabbed a 3-up lead going into the second 18. Not even an afternoon downpour when he made three straight bogeys could stop Finau as he closed out Summerhays, 3 and 2.

A couple of weeks later at the Junior Americas Cup at the Ogden Country Club, Finau started off hot with rounds of 66 and 68 to take a 5-shot lead over the field. He only managed an even-par 72 in the final round and was caught by Eugene Wong of British Columbia, and the two shared first-place honors.

For some time now, college coaches have had their eyes focused on Finau, who will begin his senior year at West High School in a couple of weeks. Finau has narrowed his choices to four Western schools: UCLA, USC, Washington and BYU, with the Cougars owning the inside track.

During the State Am, Finau was quoted as saying, "I hope I'll be a Cougar," although he also said he hasn't made a commitment.

Finau has aspirations to play the PGA Tour someday and the success he's having as a 16-year-old makes it hard to doubt he'll make it. One thing's for sure: We'll be hearing a lot more about Tony Finau in the years to come.

Tony Finau

Amateur golfer

Hometown: Salt Lake City

Age: 16

Height: 6-3

Weight: 190

July highlights: Won the Utah State Amateur golf tournament. Earned medalist honors at the Junior America's Cup.

2006 Athletes of the month

January: Ambrosia Anderson, BYU women's basketball

February: Ted Ligety, Olympic gold medalist

March: Kim Smith, Utah women's basketball

April: Chris Shelton, Detroit Tigers

May: Jeff Cunningham, Real Salt Lake

June: Howie Kendrick, Salt Lake Bees

July: Tony Finau, amateur golfer

E-mail: sor@desnews.com