KAPALUA, Hawaii (AP) — Tony Finau has been in Hawaii long enough to become a motivational speaker.
For football, not golf.
Finau arrived three weeks ago to spend time with his wife’s family near the North Shore on Oahu. His good friend, an assistant football coach at Kahuku High School, asked Finau to speak to the Red Raiders before they played for the state title.
The stories he shared sounded familiar. They were about staying hungry and working hard even during the lean years and crushing losses. Finau knows that as well as anyone.
He also makes no excuses and doesn’t grouse about any criticism carelessly thrown his way.
“That’s how it is, and this is what I signed up for,” Finau had said after ending more than five years without winning at The Northern Trust.
Kakuhu overwhelmed Saint Louis, 49-14, for its first state title in six years.
“I made it clear when I talked to them. I said, ‘I’m definitely not going to tell you guys how to play football because I would be way out of my lane,’” Finau said Wednesday. “A lot of these young men made it known to me that they look up to me as a Polynesian athlete and how I’ve conducted myself. They made it known that they like it.”
Finau, of Tongan and Samoan heritage, is 6-foot-4 with a wingspan of 6-foot-8. He could at least pass for a football player.
“I just tried to explain to them some of the things that — my life experiences — that have helped me to stay humble and to stay hungry throughout my career,” he said. “I think they have enjoyed it and hopefully some of them take it with them as they go throughout their life and throughout their careers.”
That brings him to the Sentry Tournament of Champions with a renewed sense of pride.
Finau was at Kapalua a year ago with an asterisk. Because of a year shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the criteria was changed for the winners-only start of the new year by adding anyone who reached the Tour Championship.
Finau was among 16 players who fell into that category.
“It was a different feel for me,” Finau said. “Being a champion and being here feels great. This is one of those tournaments, when you win a golf tournament you look so forward to this week. Just teeing it up with all the guys that have won, it’s a special field.”
Finau’s enthusiasm for a week in paradise is matched by Jordan Spieth, who began his career believing he would be a regular at Kapalua. That ended when he failed to win in 2018, and the following two years as his game went so off the rails that he nearly fell out of the top 100 in the world.
Spieth arrived a week early, playing down the Maui coast at Makena, traveling for the first time with his wife and 6-week-old son, Sammy. He won the Texas Open, his first title since capturing the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale.
All it takes is one win to get to Kapalua. Spieth could have had more, failing to convert chances in Phoenix and Pebble Beach, Colonial and the British Open.
“If you told me what last year was going to be at this time last year, I would have said I’m obviously very pleased,” he said. “But I can also look back and say I really wish I had won three or four events, given the amount of times I had a chance on Sunday.”
He talks about getting back to his DNA, and for the first time in years, he feels he is finally heading back in the right direction. There is excitement in his voice.
“For me, it’s maybe different from a lot of guys,” Spieth said. “For the first time in years, I feel like I’ve got some momentum.”
Finau can relate, which doesn’t winning any easier for either of them.
Finau had eight runner-up finishes — three of them playoff losses — and 39 top 10s between winning the 2016 Puerto Rico Open and beating Cameron Smith in a playoff at Liberty National last August.
“I know how hard that second one came and I put a lot of work into just getting better, and so that’s where my attention will be,” he said. “You never know when your week is going to be, but being properly prepared every week is the most important thing and that’s all I can do.”
He does not lack for preparation. Finau wasn’t on the North Shore to give a speech to the Kahuku Red Raiders.
Finau has a relationship with Turtle Bay and played there often during his two weeks on Oahu in plenty of wind and rain, all the elements Hawaii has to offer.
The pursuit of winning doesn’t get any easier. The joy of the game has never left him, even in the wake of criticism that he should be winning more.
“We didn’t really know we signed up for it when we were kids. We just wanted to play golf,” he said. “But this is what comes with it. There’s expectations when you get to a certain level. There’s expectations that come with trying to become a great player and trying to become a great winner. You take them in strike and just keep going no matter what.”
(This version corrects spelling of Kahuku)