Tony Finau

LAS VEGAS — Ever since he began playing golf a decade ago, Tony Finau has dreamed of becoming a professional golfer and playing on the PGA Tour.

He has a ways to go to play on the PGA Tour, but he's off to a pretty good start as a professional golfer, having won $100,000 in last week's preliminaries for The Ultimate Game at Wynn Las Vegas.

Over the next two days, the teenager who grew up in Rose Park has a chance to win $2 million. All he has to do is defeat 11 other professionals in a 36-hole winner-take-all event at the Wynn Las Vegas Golf Club.

The 17-year-old Finau and his younger brother, Gipper, have been legends in Utah junior golf for years while beating up on golfers much older than them. Last summer, Tony became the second-youngest champion of the State Amateur when he defeated two-time champion Daniel Summerhays.

Since then, Finau has expressed interest in playing at BYU with Summerhays and also considered UNLV and some Pac-10 schools. However, he shocked a lot of folks two weeks ago when he gave up his amateur status and entered the Wynn tournament.

"I think I made the right choice to turn pro this early," Finau said. "People think otherwise, but I try to prove them wrong and so far I have. Now I can just go out there and have a good time and not worry about people saying I don't belong here."

While Finau only has to defeat 11 other golfers, each of them is older and much more experienced. It could all come down to who is the most calm under pressure of the winner-take-all event for the largest prize in golf history.

"I don't care if you have (Jack) Nicklaus or Tiger Woods out there, the pressure is going to be enormous with every putt — especially if they're jammed up on the last nine holes," said Lee Trevino, who is one of the commentators for the broadcast of the event.

"Nothing would be better than to have about five guys within two shots of each other at the end, and I am going to tell you something, you are going to see putters jumping everywhere," Trevino said in a news conference earlier this week. "It wouldn't surprise me if the guy that wins it faints right on the 18th green. We are going need an ambulance and a doctor up there, for him and me."

OK, the Merry Mex is obviously trying to promote the event, but the fact that it is a winner-take-all format — no $500,000 for the runner-up or anything — makes it more nerve-wracking than your average tournament.

Finau withstood some pressure last week to defeat two opponents in match play, including Champions Tour part-time player Rick Rhoden. Otherwise, the most pressure he's felt on a golf course was coming from three holes down to win a Utah Junior Amateur match.

A local sponsor put up the $50,000 for Finau and $50,000 for his brother, and Tony won back the money ($100,000) by advancing to this week's finals.

As for the $2 million first prize, Finau said, "I don't think I even know how much money that is. When you say $100,000, that's a lot of money. Two million is outrageous. It'd be nice to have $2 million and say you're a millionaire."

Finau's greatest strength on the golf course is his prodigious length, but he may not be able to use it to his advantage on the Wynn course, which is a tighter golf course, just off the Las Vegas Strip, where the Desert Inn course used to be.

"The guy that wins this golf tournament, in my opinion, is a guy that has complete control of the golf ball," Trevino said. "Finau, who hits the ball 340 yards, is going to have to be extremely careful with his tee ball there, especially on 36 holes. If you play 72 holes, you can get in a little bit of trouble and come back. But when you have 36 holes, you have got to play your percentages. Do not make anything over a bogey. You cannot make that up in 36 holes."

One of the favorites has to be 27-year-old Erik Compton, a part-time Nationwide Tour player who broke the course record at the Wynn course earlier this week during a practice round with an 8-under 62.

Compton, who played collegiate golf at the University of Georgia, has won $6,264 in eight events on the Nationwide Tour this year. He only has conditional status on the Nationwide, making him eligible for this event, which doesn't allow anyone who has ever been an exempt player on one of the major tours.

That's why Rhoden can play, even though the former major league pitcher has won 43 Celebrity Tour events and earned more than $250,000 in Champions Tour events over the past four years. He has never earned exempt status and often gets in tournament on sponsor's exemptions.

The winner's share of $2 million is the highest ever for a golf event, topping the $1.6 million that goes to the winner of The Players Championship.


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