It was quite the weekend for two former Utah junior golfers whose paths crossed more than a decade ago on Utah's summer youth circuit.
Ireland’s Rory McIlroy backed up his dominating performance in the British Open by winning the World Golf Championship in Akron, Ohio, charging from behind to overtake Sergio Garcia on Sunday. That win elevated him to the coveted status of the No. 1 player in the world.
Lehi’s Tony Finau followed the same script in California, where he won the Web.com event at TPC Stonebrae by firing a 22-under par for his first victory of the season. Finau, who took a week off to rest in Utah before playing this past week, climbed to No. 8 on the Web.com money list Sunday. A top 25 finish for the season earns him a PGA Tour card.
McIlroy and Finau were summer golf pals in their pre-teen days during the summer of 2000 when McIlroy left his home in Northern Ireland to stay with the Doug Pinckney family in Orem. He also stayed in the home of Gary and the late Vena Finau in Salt Lake City that summer.
According to a report that Deseret News golf writer Mike Sorensen wrote after McIlroy won the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club, McIlroy played in 10 junior tournaments of the Utah Junior Golf Association back in 2000. He didn’t win an event that summer, but he made friends with Tony and his younger brother Gipper.
Apparently McIlroy’s parents, Rosie and Gerry, sent their son to the U.S. after he met Pinckney at a junior tournament in Florida and the two families arranged for a summer playing vacation for Rory in Utah.
“Rory was headed to a national tournament in San Diego and came early to stay and play in Utah,” according to Jeff Thurman, executive director of the Utah Junior Golf Association.
“McIlroy had just six tournaments here and Tony had been one of the top golfers in his age groups in Utah every year since he was 8 or 9 years old. Rory didn’t win any tournaments here. In fact you would never have guessed one day he’d be the No. 1 player in the world someday. Scott Pinckney was better than Rory then. Tony was very good, very respectful and like Rory was just a very good person. Both were exceptional in that regard.”
Thurman said Finau has talent but took a difficult path, turning pro right out of high school when a few years of college could have really helped him develop. “But he is showing just how great he is capable of being and obviously, so is Rory,” said Thurman.
That McIlroy and Finau both had big wins on Sunday is a very big deal for both.
With Tiger Woods ailing and misfiring, and upstart Jordan Spieth and former No. 1 Adam Scott fading, it is the soft-spoken McIlroy who has filled the void in the golf world.
McIlroy’s start-to-finish domination in the British Open several weeks ago in Liverpool was simply spectacular — a statement-making kind of major victory. But then he backed it up with another dominating performance Sunday, charging ahead of Saturday leader Garcia with three consecutive birdies to start the final round. From there, he easily held on to capture the “favored” status in the world heading into the final major at Valhalla in Louisville, Kentucky, this month.
For Finau, his three-shot victory was also a milepost for the half Tongan-Samoan Utah superstar. Only a week ago, I spoke to him by phone as he took a break after burning out at the Web.com stop in Boise, where he failed to make the cut. It came a week after he had a chance to win at the Utah Championship.
He simply needed a break and stayed home to rest and prepare for the tournament in California. Finau vowed he was mentally prepared to finish the Web.com season with a flare. He did.
Finau won the event in dominating fashion, pulling away from the field on the back nine's final five holes. The total purse at the Stonebrae Classic was $600,000 and Finau’s winner’s check was $108,000.
Finau has had four top 10 finishes, owns a 69.29-stroke average and with $238,125 in earnings this year, his check Sunday was nearly half his money earned in 2014.
But more importantly, the win shot him into the top 10 in money earnings on that tour and practically ensured him a top 25 finish and a spot alongside McIlroy next year on the PGA Tour.
Like McIlroy, Finau won with an accurate power game off the tee and clutch putting. Finau's average drive was 329 yards off the tee this past week. He made 81 percent of the greens in regulation and averaged 1.6 putts per green.1 comment on this story
Like McIlroy, Finau has a way of turning par-5 holes into par 4s, obliterating fairway yardage by eating up fairways with clubs.
But more importantly, both these budding stars are good guys. They are respectful, humble, friendly, unpretentious and simply kind people.
They’re the kind of men you can cheer for — at whatever level they walk.
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.