PGA Tour pro Tony Finau had a 1-in-250 chance of becoming a golfer. Not a professional golfer, but even playing the game at all. That’s because neither of his parents were golfers.
National Golf Foundation research finds that kids in a household where dad or mom plays golf have a 1-in-4 chance of playing the game themselves. But for those children without a parent who plays golf, the deck is severely stacked against them actually picking up the sport.
The story of how Finau defied the odds could be golf’s version of the Hollywood blockbuster “Blindside,” in which Michael Oher turned a love of football into a college scholarship and eventual NFL riches.
Finau is the third‑oldest of nine children. As a youngster, he was more interested in basketball, football and competing in fire‑knife competitions against other children of Tongan descent. It was his younger brother, Gipper, then 5, who became enthralled by seeing Tiger Woods win the 1997 Masters on TV. That motivated their mother, Ravena, to ask her husband to teach the boys the game. This despite the fact that Kelepi Finau never had swung a golf club.
“I thought golf was a game for old rich guys,” Kelepi Finau said.
Lessons and buckets of balls were beyond the family’s means, so Kelepi, who worked in cargo at Delta Air Lines, checked out instructional books and videotapes at the library. “Golf My Way” by Jack Nicklaus became his bible, and he plastered frame‑by‑frame images of the Golden Bear’s swing to their garage walls. The brothers shared a discarded 6‑iron. Sets of clubs were purchased at Salvation Army. The boys blasted balls off carpet into a mattress in the family garage in Utah. It wasn’t long before they ripped through a blanket that hung as a target and replaced it with a net. They chipped and stroked putts at a nearby par‑3 course for free, which is why the brothers learned to play from the green back to the tee.
Only when they could shoot par on the short course did they graduate to a regulation‑length course, Rose Park, in Salt Lake City. Tony joined the Utah Junior Golf Association at age 9. Mark Whetzel, director of golf at Thanksgiving Point, recognized the brothers’ raw talent and gave them a place to play. Access and cost concerns went away, allowing Finau a chance to work as hard as his heart desired. While the NGF numbers suggest Finau was a longshot to be a lifetime golfer, his father took a different viewpoint, seeing far less kids on the golf course than the hundreds practicing on the football field he drove past every day after school.
“I didn’t realize this until I got older and could drive that my dad did this intentionally,” Tony said. “He wasn’t even taking the right route.”
His father’s motivation tactics worked. Tony became junior world golf champion, the Utah State Amateur champion, and played on the 2004 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team. He earned scholarship offers from UNLV and BYU. Instead, he turned pro at age 17 in 2007. He banged around the mini tours for several years, but won the 2016 Puerto Rico Open and climbed to No. 41 in the Official World Golf Ranking as of November 19th.
What makes Finau’s story all the more remarkable is that he’s the exception rather than the rule.
There are about 2.9 million junior golfers in the U.S. and those in the 6-to-17 age group make up 12 percent of golf’s total participation base. Yet only about 30 percent to 40 percent of junior golfers become lifetime customers.
Over the past 25 years, junior participation in golf has mirrored adult participation, with roughly one junior golfer for every eight adults. The similarity between participation levels speaks to the impact that parents have on the sport.
“There’s not one guy I know on the PGA Tour who hasn’t had the support or assistance of a father or grandpa, or both parents,” said Finau, 28, and a fourth‑year Tour pro.
The numbers back him up. Four out of five junior golfers had their first golf experience with a parent, and almost as many – roughly 75 percent – say they typically play with mom or dad. Both numbers stand in stark contrast to other sports.
Hoping to better understand this dynamic, and the pathways to youth engagement, the NGF is currently undertaking the sport’s largest‑ever junior study.
Golf’s dependence on a parent to introduce their children to the game isn’t ideal, said Steve Tanner, director of leagues for PGA Junior League.
“We are relying on 24 million golfers minus the 3 million kids who can be conduits to getting youth into the game,” he said. “In comparison, baseball, soccer, basketball, and football are games kids learn because they play them at recess and after school. They don’t need their parents to give them a basketball and put a hoop in their driveway.”
Tennis and figure skating rank alongside golf as sports that are reliant on parent participation. On‑course programs such as PGA Junior League are addressing parent dependency. NGF research shows 80 percent of juniors enjoy playing on a team – and not a combined team of kids and parents. Equally troubling is research that finds almost half the parents of non‑golfing juniors expressed a concern that their child wouldn’t have friends to play golf with. It was as significant a barrier as cost concerns and a bigger factor than finding the time to play.
In the past, when parents sought activities that foster shared success and a sense of belonging for their children, individual sports such as golf historically had little to offer. Enter PGA Junior League, which promotes and offers junior golf in an entirely new format: team play – with uniforms and player substitutions – to rival baseball, soccer and lacrosse leagues.
“PGA Junior League is on to something,” said Dedric Holmes, vice‑president of coaching, training, and delivery for The First Tee. “Golf needs to look more like other sports offerings that parents know and understand, meaning practice and a game once a week.”
Designed to attract new golfers from the tender ages of 7 to 13, Junior League Golf assembles teams of 12 players, and they compete against other squads, using a two‑player scramble format. PGA and LPGA professionals serve exclusively as Captains, providing kids with expert coaching and instruction. Over 42,000 players participated in 2017, up from 17,000 in 2014, at just over 2,200 participating golf facilities. All told, there are more than 700 leagues and 3,500 teams playing. Tanner said 44 percent of participants were new golfers and 36 percent identified themselves as recreational players. There is still plenty of room for growth, according to Tanner, who said the next step in the program’s evolution is to implement multiple age ranges to address the different needs of junior golfers through the high school years.
“There is no other youth sports program with one broad‑stroke age range,” he said, noting the PGA is two‑to‑three years away from implementation.
Al Petitpas, who retired this year after a lengthy career as the Center for Youth Development and Research Director at Springfield College in Massachusetts, says PGA Junior League is making positive strides at attracting a new audience.
“Young people are staying around for the social and fun aspects until they eventually get hooked on golf,” Petitpas said.
Petitpas served as a member of the development team that created the original life‑skills curriculum and coach‑education program for The First Tee. Research conducted by Petitpas suggests that turning traditional instruction on its head and introducing golf through a tennis or soccer ball — something of which they already have previous experience — can lead to young people wanting to try golf with real clubs. Petitpas cited the movement with foot‑golf, and how activities such as Topgolf are getting juniors trained to aim at targets.
Josh Jacobs, founder of TGA, which offers youth golf after‑school enrichment programs and camps, recognized and filled a void for introductory programs that make golf available to the general public. Jacobs noted that few junior golf programs are designed to introduce golf to kids whose parents don’t already play golf. Nearly 70 percent of TGA participants and their parents are newcomers to golf.
“We have found that parents of TGA students either take up the game or play more because their kids play,” Jacobs said. “This is the real opportunity within the golf industry, one that has yet to be tapped in an organized way.”
TGA can run its station‑based program in hallways, gyms, or even on rooftops.
“When a young child is with friends in a familiar environment, it’s a lot less intimidating than going to a golf course,” Jacobs said.
The First Tee’s Golf in Schools program is now in over 9,000 schools and has reached more than 8.5 million kids. It is designed for children in kindergarten through 5th grade, those years when kids are bombarded with activities and start to choose what sport, if any, to play. They learn using modified, developmentally appropriate golf equipment consisting of durable plastic, oversized heads, shorter shafts, tennis-style balls, and a variety of bright, colorful targets.
Physical education isn’t required in most states and some schools have ditched it in favor of more class time. For the program to succeed, physical educators have to be convinced they can teach golf. It’s not enough to simply hand out a curriculum or ask the local pro to teach golf.
But there are efforts underway that the golf industry believes will make a dent into golf’s 250‑to‑1 odds so that the likes of Tony Finau’s rise in professional golf won’t seem so remarkable.
“I love everything about golf,” Finau said. “The competitiveness, how fair it is, the life lessons I’ve learned from it. To me, golf will sell itself if we can make the game accessible to more kids the way it was made available to me.”
Adam has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World, Morning Read, LINKS and The New York Times. The New York native is also the author of Deane Beman: Golf’s Driving Force.