Tony Finau on his astronomical rise to the Ryder Cup

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There are days, even now, when Tony Finau’s father Kelepi will attend tournaments but not watch his son play. Instead he will be found in the car park, or the clubhouse, watching the action on his phone — and pinching himself.

‘It’s still too hard for me to wrap my head around the fact that you can get from where we came from to the PGA Tour,’ he explains. ‘It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, seriously, what are the odds?’

In a word, astronomical. The Ryder Cup beginning in Versailles in 12 days is chock-full of stories of players overcoming enormous obstacles to make the respective teams. There’s Tiger Woods following his four back operations, Ian Poulter’s recovery from the depths, and Paul Casey’s return after a decade on the sidelines.

Tony Finau was named as the Team USA's wild card for the upcoming Ryder Cup in Versailles

Tony Finau was named as the Team USA's wild card for the upcoming Ryder Cup in Versailles

Tony Finau was named as the Team USA’s wild card for the upcoming Ryder Cup in Versailles

But no one has a story like Finau, the last man to be named when Jim Furyk, the United States captain, completed his wild card puzzle last Monday.

Kelepi came from Tonga to Salt Lake City, Utah, in his early 20s in search of a better life. Working the nightshift at Delta Airlines, he and his late wife, Ravena, raised seven kids in a tough neighbourhood, where everyone played basketball and no one thought about golf.

It was only after Tony’s brother Gipper was watching the game on TV that the siblings showed an interest. Kelepi went down to the local Salvation Army and spent £2 buying his sons a six iron, putter and a little red bag of balls.

In the garage, he hung an old mattress from the ceiling so they could hit balls against it. He went down to the local library and read a Jack Nicklaus instruction book, so he had some idea of the rudiments. 

Tony Finau celebrated his call-up to the Ryder Cup team with traditional Tongan ceremony

Tony Finau celebrated his call-up to the Ryder Cup team with traditional Tongan ceremony

Tony Finau celebrated his call-up to the Ryder Cup team with traditional Tongan ceremony

When it became clear that Tony had a rare gift, the family scrimped so he could play in tournaments. Once, he and his mum slept in the car to save on a hotel bill. Ravena would regularly skip meals. Finau turned pro at 17 and played in Las Vegas for money he didn’t have. 

He remembers one skins game where he was down $800 with $20 in his pocket. He then had a hole in one on his way to walking off the course a few holes later with $600.

‘You learn about yourself in those situations,’ he says. ‘It’s like when I started out in the garage. I learned how to strike a ball because I was playing off a thin carpet and couldn’t afford to hit it fat. They are vivid memories, and I’m grateful, because they’ve made me who I am.’

Finau talks with caddie Gregory Bodine during the third round of the BMW Championship

Finau talks with caddie Gregory Bodine during the third round of the BMW Championship

Finau talks with caddie Gregory Bodine during the third round of the BMW Championship

He might be a Ryder Cup rookie but it’s hard to imagine Finau is going to be overwhelmed by the experience. A man who overcame all this as well as the loss of his mother, who died in a car accident when he was just 22.

Finau, now 29, has learned to harness his extraordinary power with a silky short game. He has mustered 11 top 10 finishes this season, including three in the majors and three in his last three starts.

For Kelepi, however, the Ryder Cup might well prove another of those occasions when he has to watch from the car park. Or the clubhouse. Awash with the significance of the moment.

‘For me, it’s almost like we can finally be accepted as American,’ he said, in an interview with the Golf Channel. ‘It shows that anyone can come to this country and be successful. It just takes gratitude and hard work. Tony epitomises the American dream.’

Finau's long driving will come as an asset to Team USA as they take of Europe in France

Finau's long driving will come as an asset to Team USA as they take of Europe in France

Finau’s long driving will come as an asset to Team USA as they take of Europe in France

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