Utah-born professional golfer Tony Finau grew up in an impoverished neighborhood on Salt Lake City’s west side, honed his swing by pounding golf balls into a mattress hung in a garage, and used old equipment that was either borrowed or purchased at thrift stores.

Through dogged determination, an inspirational work ethic, a few breaks and indisputable athletic talent, Finau has become one of the top golfers in the world, and nothing short of a huge sports icon in his home state. He is widely considered one of Utah’s top ambassadors.

Throughout his career, Finau, 33, has continually thanked and praised the people who helped get him where he is today, and has given back in the form of sponsoring other up-and-coming pros such as former BYU golfers Patrick Fishburn and Peter Kuest and former Utah Utes golfer Blake Tomlinson with tens of thousands of dollars through his Tony Finau Foundation.

Finau is a married father of five, one of the most beloved players on the PGA Tour, a fan favorite wherever he plays and by most accounts, a charitable man. Through initiatives such as “Birdies for Books” and “Tony’s Turkeys” and the Tony Finau Foundation Learning Center in West Valley City, Finau has bettered the lives of hundreds of his fellow Utahns, most notably in his former Rose Park neighborhood.

He is also wealthy.

According to PGAtour.com, Finau has amassed more than $37 million in winnings, a figure that doesn’t account for the millions more he’s made from appearances, endorsements and the like. Spotrac.com estimates Finau’s career earnings to be in the $50 million range.

Not everything is rosy in Finau’s life, however.

Some people who helped Finau and his brother, Gipper, get started in professional golf when they were just teenagers now want what they say is owed to them — tens of millions of dollars. And they say they have witnesses, legal contracts and other documents to prove it.

Two different investors, in separate lawsuits, are suing the Finau brothers and their father Kelepi “Gary” Finau. Former business associate and family friend Molonai Hola sued in September 2020, while Utah County businessman David Hunter filed his complaint in May 2021.

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Both Hola and Hunter, who are not working together, say they want repayment for loans and other work and services they say they provided to the family from 2006 to 2009, totaling about $1.1 million. They also seek, separately, up to 20% each of Tony Finau’s career earnings, which could be in the tens of millions. In April, Finau won $1.3 million with a first-place finish at the Mexico Open.

Gipper Finau, not quite a year younger than Tony, never made it to the PGA Tour and has made a negligible amount of money as a pro golfer.

West High golfer Gipper Finau drives the ball on the 16th hole in the 4A State Golf Match at Valley View Golf Course on Oct. 11, 2005. | Michael Brandy, Deseret News

Hola’s lawsuit is nearing its three-year mark and is still active, although some claims have been dismissed.

Hunter’s lawsuit was summarily dismissed in November 2021, but he appealed and the Utah Court of Appeals reinstated it and heard oral arguments on it Tuesday at the Matheson Third District Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City.

Judges Ryan M. Harris, Gregory K. Orme and Ryan D. Tenney listened to arguments on why the lawsuit should be allowed to proceed, or be dismissed again, from attorneys representing both sides before Orme said they would “take the matter under advisement and let you know of our decision as soon as we are able to do that.”

Manager: ‘No upside’ for Finau to speak publicly

Tony Finau’s representatives would not respond to specific allegations or make the golfer available for comment regarding either lawsuit.

“We never comment on matters of a legal nature … and are confident that the legal process will carry out in due course,” Finau’s manager, Chris Armstrong of the Wasserman Media Group, told the Deseret News.

Suggesting there was “no upside” to commenting on legal matters, Finau’s representatives concluded, “These things take time, and (this has) been exacerbated by COVID, and court backlogs and delays and everything else,” the manager said. “So we have to just let the process run its course. We are obviously very comfortable with the position where he sits. … He does not feel like he needs to defend himself. … We will set the record straight (in court).”

First complaint filed by Molonai Hola in 2020

That Finau is being sued by Hola is not new news. The Deseret News first reported in September 2020, that the former University of Utah football player and Salt Lake City mayoral candidate sought more than $16 million in repayment stemming from a deal first agreed to in 2006 — when Tony was 16 and Gipper was 15 — in which Hola claims he bankrolled the Finaus for several years before Tony’s career took off when he made the PGA Tour in 2014.

The Hola lawsuit story made national headlines when it was published nearly three years ago.

Salt Lake City attorneys Joshua S. Ostler and Patrick Shea are representing Hola in the complaint filed on Sept. 14, 2020. They attended the hearing Tuesday on the Hunter case, merely as spectators, and confirmed that Hola’s lawsuit is still making its way through court after the defendants successfully got the case moved out of Salt Lake County and into Utah County, where the Finaus reside part-time in Lehi.

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A key witness on Hola’s behalf is former Finau agent Dieter Esch, a onetime Park City resident and co-owner of Wilhelmina International, a talent and modeling agency. Esch has supported much of Hola’s assertions in a deposition made available to the Deseret News by Hola’s attorneys.

Esch also went on “The Drive with Spence Checketts” show on ESPN 700 radio earlier this month and backed Hola’s account of the loans and other financial support from 2006-09, saying in his professional estimation Hola is due more than $5 million. Esch laid the blame at the feet of Gary Finau.

A key claim of Hola’s is that Gary Finau, the father, was on the payroll of ICON Sports Consultants for three years, but when renowned golf instructor David Leadbetter (who was personally coaching the brothers) and others complained to Hola that the father was “getting in the way” of the boys’ development and even hindering it, Hola let Gary Finau go.

According to Hola’s initial complaint, and in a four-way interview this month with the Deseret News that included his attorneys, Hola claims that when he separated with Gary Finau, his former employee persuaded his sons to vote to dissolve The Finau Corp. that had been set up to handle the flow of money from the boys’ earnings, and cut ties with Hola.

The Finau Corp. was owned by Hola, his business associate Steve Gasser, Gary Finau, Tony Finau and Gipper Finau, with each owning a 20% stake in the company. It was dissolved by the Finaus in 2009, an action that is at the root of both lawsuits.

Esch and others involved are urging a settlement, but it appears the case is heading to trial, attorneys Ostler and Shea said.

Former mayoral candidate Molonai Hola poses in his reading room at his Salt Lake City home on Sept. 15, 2003. | Michael Brandy, Deseret News

Ostler said in early August it is “significant” that both sides made motions for summary judgment — basically asking the court to rule in their favor, but the court denied both motions, ostensibly saying there are issues of fact that a jury should decide.

The attorneys predicted a trial to be anywhere between three and six months away. They said an out-of-court settlement has not been discussed. Mediation was sought early on, but nothing came of those talks.

It should be noted that two of Hola’s three claims in his initial complaint have been dismissed, including breach of contract and tortious interference against Armstrong and Wasserman Media. The unjust enrichment claim is still alive, court documents show.

Lawsuit No. 2: Another investor group steps forward

A similar, but separate, lawsuit was filed on May 5, 2021, by Utah County real estate developer David Hunter, 53, who is most known in Utah for co-founding Halestorm Entertainment. It’s the case that went to the appellate court on Tuesday.

Hunter’s lawsuit names Tony, Gipper and Gary Finau and “John Does 1-10” as defendants. Hunter asks for repayment of an interest-free loan of $495,000 in addition to 20% of the brothers’ earnings as professional golfers throughout their careers.

It is not the same 20% that Hola claims he is due.

The lawsuit does not specify an exact amount that is owed, as Hola’s suit attempted to do in 2020 when it sought more than $16 million, but seeks “compensatory, punitive and exemplary damages to be proven at trial,” in addition to attorneys’ fees and legal costs.

Hunter has produced two contracts — signed by Hola, Gary Finau and Steve Gasser in 2007 — that are the basis of his claim and have been acquired by the Deseret News.

The Finaus’ attorneys — Stewart O. Peay and John A. Wirthlin — sought to have the two cases consolidated shortly after Hunter’s was filed, but were unsuccessful, court documents show. Peay argued for the case to be dismissed again at Tuesday’s appearance in front of the appellate court, while one of Hunter’s attorneys — Leah Aston — argued for its continuance.

Hunter now owns the entire contract, having purchased the remainder from various owners during the past 15 years, according to a string of court documents.

The contract features a “Loan Agreement” of $495,000 signed on Oct. 9, 2007, by Hola, Gasser and Gary Finau, to be repaid when the Finaus started making money through professional golf. Another part of the contract is the “Equity Interest Purchase Agreement,” signed on the same day in which, for the sum of $5,000, the Finaus agreed to give 20% of their earnings to ICON Sports, an agency co-owned by Hola and Hunter’s deceased friend, Steven D. Gasser.

In various court filings, Tony Finau’s attorneys argue that because the golfer did not personally sign the contract like his father did, and/or agree to the handshake deal with Hola that Gary Finau allegedly took part in, Tony Finau should not be a target of the claims. They also argued that the statute of limitations prevents the filing of a lawsuit, and it was that argument Peay focused on in Tuesday’s hearing.

Who was Steve Gasser, and why does Hunter now own his stake?

Steve Gasser is a central figure in the early days of the business agreement between Hola’s ICON Sports Agency, and the dispute. Gasser was “an Agency Representative for ICON Sports” according to Hunter’s complaint, and Gasser had funded a “large portion,” if not all, of the $500,000 that landed in the Finaus’ hands, Hunter told the Deseret News.

But Gasser died at the age of 46 of sudden cardiac arrest while biking in the 100-mile Tour de St. George race in southern Utah in October 2010. He made millions of dollars as the co-founder of Sole Fitness, a Utah-based company that makes treadmills, before his death.

Gasser and Hunter were close friends, and Hunter invested $100,000 in the ICON Sports Agency started by Gasser and Hola. ICON Sports Agency went out of business in 2007. Hunter says that Gasser was so distraught over losing $100,000 of his friend’s money that he offered him a percentage of Sole Fitness, and a stake in the deal with the Finaus, who had formed The Finau Corporation (TFC) with Hola and Gasser.

Gasser’s estate went to his 80-year-old mother. She declined to pursue the Finaus for the alleged money owed. When she passed away, minority owner Hunter, with the help of his friend, former Vivint owner Todd Pedersen, bought the remaining portion of the Finau contract from the estate, court records show.

“It was a one-in-a-million moonshot we took on a 17-year-old Tony Finau, and it worked out,” Hunter said of his stake in the original contract from 2007 and purchase of the entire contract from the Gassers in 2016, just before Finau’s career really took off. 

“People ask why we think we’re entitled to his earnings. We ask back, ‘Who risks $500,000 on a 17-year-old kid who hadn’t done a thing yet in pro golf? We deserve to be compensated for that,” Hunter told the Deseret News.

In April 2021, about seven months after Hola filed his complaint, Pedersen sold his share to Hunter, who now owns 100% of the contract, court documents show.

Contract dispute

Efforts to resolve the complaints with the Finaus outside of court have been unsuccessful, both plaintiffs say.

In his initial complaint, Hunter says he sent Finau a copy of the contracts signed by Hola, Gasser and Gary Finau (who were all part of The Finau Corporation when the contracts were signed in 2007) on May 8, 2015, and called him the next day asking for repayment of the loan and 20% of the golfer’s earnings.

Finau made a little more than $2 million in the 2014-15 season and was 43rd in the FedEx Cup final standings.

“The Finaus have since refused multiple attempts to settle this dispute,” Hunter’s Orem-based attorneys, Michael J. Petro and Aston, wrote in the initial complaint.

The golfer and his management/legal team have countered in various filings and motions that any and all contracts were nullified when The Finau Corporation dissolved in 2009. Hunter and his attorney allege that the Finaus fraudulently dissolved the company because they had three of the five votes (Gary, Tony, Gipper) and ICON Sports Agency had just two (Gasser and Hola), according to the initial complaint.

Hunter said he has yet to be repaid any portion of the loan and has not received any of the Finaus’ earnings from pro golf. He said that Steve Gasser never received a dollar from the Finaus, either.

Hunter appeals dismissal of his lawsuit

Hunter filed his complaint on May 5, 2021, in Utah’s 4th District Court. He says that shortly after, representatives of the Wasserman agency visited him in his Provo office and said they weren’t admitting any responsibility for repayment of the loan or the 20% of Finau’s earnings, but “just wanted the thing to go away.”

“They offered us a foursome in Tony’s charity foundation golf tournament,” Hunter said. “We about fell over, we were laughing so hard.”

Hunter’s lawsuit suffered a serious blow in November 2021 when Judge James Taylor dismissed it with prejudice, granting the defendants’ motion to dismiss the complaint and all five of his claims.

Chiefly, the court found that the statute of limitations (six years) had run out on Hunter’s breach of contract claim because the contract was signed in 2007.

Hunter’s attorneys had argued that they had no reason to file a breach of contract claim until 2015 because up to that point Tony Finau had not made any significant money as a pro golfer. As Hunter stated above, his first claim to any of Finau’s earnings didn’t come until 2015, and was done via personal letter and then by phone.

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Hunter’s attorneys appealed Taylor’s Nov. 18, 2021, and on June 14, 2023, he received a letter from the Utah Court of Appeals stating that the court would hear oral arguments on the case.

Those oral arguments took place Tuesday, with each side getting 15 minutes for oral arguments before Aston got three minutes for a rebuttal. All three judges peppered both sides with questions.

Leaving the courtroom, Hunter was as determined as ever to see his lawsuit through.

“This thing is far from over,” Hunter said last week. “It is a wild and crazy story, but it deserves to be told.”

A young Tony Finau tees off on the 17th hole during the Junior America’s Cup at the Ogden Golf and Country Club in Ogden on July 27, 2006. | Keith Johnson, Deseret News
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