EDISON, New Jersey (Reuters) - Tony Finau is the first player of Tongan and American Samoan descent to compete on the PGA Tour and the former fire knife dancer has been able to transfer his skills to a different kind of blade to compete at the highest level.
Finau’s rise from Salt Lake City poverty to golf’s premier tour is the stuff of Disney movie scripts but the strapping rookie is proving more fact than fiction as he stands one shot off the lead halfway through The Barclays.
The 25-year-old followed his opening five-under 65 with a 69 on Friday to sit just behind two-times Masters winner Bubba Watson at Plainfield Country Club.
The 6ft-4in Finau went from luau fundraisers his parents threw, where he performed with the fire knife and his sister danced the hula so he could compete in junior golf events, to battling for the $10 million FedExCup jackpot.
“To have a chance to play for $10 million is really unbelievable,” said Finau, who turned professional at 17 and graduated from the world of mini-tours to the PGA, where he has already posted five top-10 finishes in his rookie campaign.
”I just focus on what I‘m doing here this week and try to attack this golf course on the weekend.
“I feel like I’ve earned my stripes. I feel like I belong out here and I‘m starting to prove that to myself week-in, week-out as I play here and start to get confidence.”
Finau grew up in a poor neighborhood and learned golf on a par-three public course.
“I definitely didn’t grow up like the average golfer out here; the atmosphere that I was surrounded with and kind of living out of poverty,” he said.
”The neighborhood that we grew up in, a lot of gangs, things like that. A lot of my friends were involved in that. So it was really cool to be interested in the game of golf at a really young age to kind of take me away from that.
“And I was able to excel early,” said the long-hitting Finau, who tied for 10th at the PGA Championship and for 14th at the U.S. Open after an eighth-place tie at the Memorial.
Finau then explained how he excelled at a radically different pastime before he got proficient at golf.
”Fire knife dancing, it’s pretty basic,“ he explained. ”It’s just a stick with knives at the end. We wrap towels around the knives that you can light on fire, and you spin it around and (see) whoever can do the best tricks.
“It’s a warrior dance back in the islands of Samoa. My mom taught me how to do it.”
Finau’s arms display evidence of the hours of practice he put in.
“I was really good. I competed. There was competitions in Hawaii. I competed just spinning the knife around. I have cuts all over my forearms from it and burn marks,” he said.
”It’s not safe for me to do now that I play golf, but I enjoy doing it.
“I finished third in the Junior World Competition in fire knife dancing when I was 10,” he said. “I could spin the knife around and spin the stick around pretty good.”
Editing by John O'Brien