BROOKLINE, Mass. – Toni Hakula admits that he gets a few incredulous looks when he tells people he plays golf.
It has nothing to do with his physical stature. When you’re an athlete from Finland, people expect you to swing a hockey stick, not a golf club.
“I’m a huge fan,” said Hakula of the winter pastime that has produced several Finnish players who have gone on to compete in the National Hockey League.
Hakula did play hockey for 10 years, but golf always was his first love from the time he watched it on television at the age of 4. Even in a country where the game has little pedigree and a short season, Hakula found more joy in a chip shot than a slap shot.
“I loved hockey and I still miss it, but at some point you’ve got to choose between them,” said the 21-year-old Hakula, who earned a spot in Wednesday’s match-play draw at the 113th U.S. Amateur by surviving a 17-for-15 playoff at The Country Club. “Golf was always the front-runner, so it was an easy choice in the end.”
Finland only has some 100 golf courses and, unlike the plethora of hockey stars such as Boston Bruins standout goalie Tuukka Rask and former All-Star Teemu Selanne, there is a dearth of notable golfers. Mikko Ilonen did win the 2000 British Amateur and has since won three times on the European Tour. Minea Blomqvist is the country’s best female player.
For starters, the season is short in the Scandanavian country, so elite golfers must travel to play year-round. Hakula can attest to compiling plenty of frequent-flier miles for his golf.
Hakula first came to the U.S. when he was 16 to play in the Junior Players at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. It was there that college coaches first took notice. Hakula, who speaks fluent English, also made some unofficial visits, including to the University of Texas, where the seasonal climate is much more conducive for year-round golf.
The transition to college, however, wasn’t an easy one. Hakula struggled as a freshman at Texas, barely breaking 80 during the fall season. Not only was he in a different country, but the competition was far stiffer than he faced back home.
Doubt crept into his head. Did he belong in college? Was he good enough to compete at the Division I level?
“Most kids who come from Europe or a long ways [from home] don’t really get it going from the start,” said Hakula. “You miss home. You just have to get over that first two months.”
Things eventually turned around for Hakula, who will enter his senior season this fall. But his breakthrough came earlier this summer.
Competing in his fourth British Amateur, Hakula advanced all the way to the championship match at Royal Cinque Ports, making him just the second Finnish golfer – Ilonen was the first – to play in the British Amateur final. In the semifinals, he ousted Max Orrin, of England, 4 and 2.
Hakula lost the title match to Garrick Porteous of England, 6 and 5, but his confidence was renewed.
“I went into the British Amateur and didn’t feel anything special,” said Hakula. “All I wanted to do was make match play. And I ended up going all the way [to the final]. Something just clicked. Maybe it was because it was match play and I didn’t really have to think about score. I was just playing one other guy. Maybe that’s what I needed.”
Hakula used that run as a springboard for the rest of the summer. Just before he tied for fifth at the Porter Cup, he qualified for the U.S. Amateur at Harbor Links Golf Course in Port Washington, N.Y. While his British Amateur finish wasn’t good enough to get him inside the top 50 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking in time for a U.S. Amateur exemption, he has since moved up to 49th.
Hakula became the second player from Finland to qualify for the U.S. Amateur, joining Antti Ahokas, who lost in the Round of 32 to eventual champion Richie Ramsay seven years ago at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
After opening with an even-par 70 at Charles River Country Club, the companion stroke-play qualifying venue, Hakula followed with a 4-over 74 at The Country Club. He was lamenting a missed short birdie putt on 17 after his round Tuesday at TCC, but all was forgotten after he earned a spot in the draw via a 17-for-15 playoff on Wednesday. He faces Oliver Goss, of Australia at 12:50 p.m. EDT.
“This summer has been great,” said Hakula, who also played in the Western Amateur and the European Team Championships in Denmark. “And hopefully this week is going to be better.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.