LEHI — Sitting behind his desk at Thanksgiving Point, he reaches over and takes out a player’s card of PGA Tour rookie Tony Finau. On the back is a photo of Finau as a 14-year-old junior golfer with a baby-face smile. The autograph signed by Finau gives thanks to Mark Whetzel for helping him with his golf game.
This week Finau joins fellow Utahn Daniel Summerhays as Utah’s only native representatives in the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay near Seattle. Whetzel, director of golf at Thanksgiving Point and CEO of Vanguard Golf Management, will be watching the scoreboard with eagle eyes all week. He's waited a dozen years to see Tony play in his first major.
On Monday after the Utah County Commissioners Cup Charity golf tourney wound down at Thanksgiving point, Whetzel described the Finau watch from his perch as one of a “proud father” of sorts.
Ever since Tony and Gipper Finau broke onto the local golf scene at Rose Park Golf Course, Whetzel has taken both under his wing, given lessons, examined their swings, given pointers, suggested swing changes and opened up his courses at The Ranches in Eagle Mountain and Thanksgiving Point in Lehi to the siblings, their home base.
“I’ve known Tony since he was 12 years old. This photo was of him at the junior world championships. I’ve watched him grow as a player and I couldn’t be more proud of his development over the years and now he’s in his first major,” said Whetzel.
Finau and Summerhays qualified for the Open in two separate sites in Ohio after competing in the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio. Finau currently ranks 50th on the PGA Tour money list and has earned $1.3 million in his rookie season.
Finau might be a rookie, but he’s been a pro since he was 17.
Whetzel remembers when both Tony and Gipper spurned college offers and struck out as professionals so young, people were critical of their decisions. And it has been hard. Tony has played for money for eight years before earning his card this past fall. Both Tony and Gipper appeared on the Golf Channel’s popular “Big Break” competition several years ago.
“He’s been through a lot of hard trials. He’s had a lot of doubters. People want to know why he didn’t accept offers to play golf or basketball in college. But he’s got the head for it — to be a prize money pro at the game of golf.
“I remember out on the driving range when he was really young and Gipper has the raw talent and could do everything. Tony, however, would listen to me. Not that Gip wouldn’t listen, but with Tony, it really sunk in. Gip was so talented, I could tell him something and he would fix it right away. With Tony, it would take him an hour to process what I was telling him to do. He wanted to understand it from the beginning to the end and from an early age he wanted to know why he was doing something and what was the cause and effect.”
It doesn’t surprise Whetzel that Finau has been successful this year because he gets it and he thinks at a high level. Too many people get caught up on so many things with the golf swing and Tiger Woods is experiencing this right now. But Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller have always said keep it simple and that’s what Tony does and why he's so successful.
At 6-foot-4 and just over 200 pounds, 25-year-old Tony has the athletic size and hands to hit it with the top players in the game. He ranks No. 3 in driving distance on the PGA Tour at 307 yards, just behind Dustin Johnson (317) and Charlie Beljan (307.3), and is ahead in distance over former Masters champion Bubba Watson, one of the biggest bombers in the game.
Finau has had 10 Top 10 finishes on Tour this year, a sterling effort already and the season not even half over.
At Chambers Bay, the field will see a unique layout, a links-style course where many tee shots demand a long carry. Combine that with Seattle’s thick sea air and Finau’s first major might cater to his type of game.
“Tony has the length, and those greens will be hard. He can hit the ball so high, it definitely will be to his advantage,” said Whetzel.
We shall see.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.