Toni Hakula considers himself “fully Texan.” After all, he’s lived in Austin for a decade, and graduated from Texas in 2014. Curiously, his sports allegiances lie with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Denver Broncos and incumbent NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers.
Unlike most of his fellow Austinites, however, Hakula grew up in Espoo, the second-largest city in Finland. The 29-year old speaks four languages: English, Finnish, Swedish and German. In another life, he might have wanted to turn pro in hockey or tennis.
In this world, however, golf is — and always has been — his true love.
“I believe I started (playing golf) when I was about four years old,” Hakula said. “I played a couple other sports growing up too, but I think when I was around 13 is when I had dropped everything else. I definitely had a lot of success growing up as a kid. I’ve always been very competitive in that sense.”
After high school, Hakula became a member of the Texas men’s golf program. He admits that his first few months in the United States were “absolutely a little tricky” as he got used to living in a culture worlds apart from the one in which he was raised.
So what made acclimatization easier for the team’s lone freshman in 2010? It was the people around him, from teammates to coaches to academic staff. Hakula credits them all with helping him settle in and get his new life rolling.
And he rolled indeed.
In 2011, he was named Big 12 newcomer of the year. A season later, he was part of the Longhorns’ national championship team alongside a trifecta of current PGA Tour players: Jordan Spieth, Dylan Frittelli and Kramer Hickok. Hakula went 2-1 in the 2012 championship run as Frittelli clinched the Longhorns’ third NCAA title with a 30-foot putt on the 18th hole against top-seeded Alabama.
“Oh, that year was absolutely amazing,” Hakula said. “Really all four years that I was at school, we had solid teams, we had a lot of good guys. The guys who played on that team are PGA Tour winners.”
Spieth is obviously the most decorated of Hakula’s former teammates. His recent struggles have been well-documented, but the 2015 FedEx Cup champion still has 11 Tour victories under his belt. Frittelli owns one Tour win (the 2019 John Deere Classic) and four international triumphs. Hickok is still seeking his first breakthrough on the big circuit, but has one Korn Ferry Tour win and two Mackenzie Tour titles.
“Seeing their success gives you more belief in your own doings,” Hakula said. “You know, it’s possible to (have success as a pro), and I can do that too.”
Not every athlete gets to live out his dream with family by his side, but Hakula has been fortunate. In 2013, his younger sister Anne flew across the pond to join him at UT. Father Tommi and mother Helena moved stateside that year as well, and the whole family has since put down roots in Austin.
Anne herself became a Longhorn and joined the women’s team, where she played all four years until graduation. Along the way, she fell in love with Hickok, her big brother’s former teammate. In a few weeks, she will move from Austin to Dallas to join her fiance ahead of their planned December wedding.
“When they get married, we’ll have actual extended family who are all golfers as well so it kind of brings us all together,” Hakula said.
The bulk of Hakula’s pro experience has come on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, where he won the 2018 Bupa Match Play and has a pair of top-10s to go with it. He rode out the COVID-19 shutdown at home in Austin. He practiced his skills at the familiar University of Texas Golf Club, which was able to operate during the shutdown with health protocols in place.
COVID-19 did force several PGA Tour affiliates, including the Mackenzie Tour and PGA Tour Latinoamerica, to cancel or postpone their seasons. When news arose of a novel U.S.-based tour that would operate in lieu of them, Hakula was “fully in, 100%”.
Enter the LOCALiQ Tour, which materialized due to a collaboration between the PGA Tour and its management partners to bring back golf for players at all levels of the pro game. It kicked off in early August with the Alpharetta Classic in Georgia and was originally scheduled to conclude in late October with a season finale in the Bahamas. Due to logistical and health-related issues, the series championship was moved back three weeks to TPC Sugarloaf in Atlanta.
Hakula finds himself third in the LOCALiQ points standings. Despite missing two consecutive cuts from late August to early September, he proved that he could hang with the best.
The Finn’s finest moment came during The Challenge at Harbor Hills in late September. There, Hakula carded a final-round 7-under 63, made only one bogey on his last 46 holes and broke a four-way tie to emerge victorious.
“I was very happy to obviously get the win,” said the former Longhorn, who also owns a tie for fifth finish on the LOCALiQ Tour. “I felt like my game was in great shape all summer, and just hadn’t quite closed out a tournament yet, so having done that at Harbor Hills, especially the way the last day went. We were all going after it, birdieing, and having to really clutch up to win the event was very cool.”
Hakula would have welcomed going to the Bahamas, but he doesn’t mind playing the series championship in Atlanta either. “It’ll be fun,” he said. “I still have the goal to be top two and hopefully get a PGA Tour exemption for next year. The whole series has been so great so far, I’m sure the last event’s gonna be icing on the cake.”