‘Today was history’: Tyler Strafaci captures Havemeyer, his family’s ‘holy grail’
BANDON, Ore. – The cool mist that blanketed Bandon Dunes on Sunday evening made it difficult to discern the tears welling in Frank Strafaci Jr.’s eyes as he stood just off the final green of the famed resort’s namesake course. But they were there, so much so that it must’ve been nearly impossible for him to get a clear view of his youngest son, Tyler, about 50 yards away, posing for photos with one of golf’s most prized trophies.
Finding the right words, however, was no problem.
“Yesterday was about fulfilling a little kid’s dreams,” said Frank Jr., who, at 62 years old, had caddied Tyler all the way to the championship match of the 120th U.S. Amateur, an achievement that, among other spoils, qualified the 22-year-old Strafaci for his first Masters.
“Today was history.”
Eighty-five years ago, Frank Strafaci Sr., Frank Jr’s father and Tyler’s grandfather, won his first, and only, USGA championship, the 1935 U.S. Amateur Public Links, at age 19. As for the Havemeyer Trophy, it had always eluded the Strafaci family – first Frank Sr., the amateur legend who took 16 cracks at the U.S. Amateur, and then Frank Jr., an accomplished amateur in his own right with three U.S. Amateur starts. And it remained out of reach until Tyler, the Georgia Tech senior playing his country’s oldest championship for a fourth time, finally brought the hardware home with a momentous 1-up victory over SMU’s Ollie Osborne in a gripping 36-hole title bout along Oregon’s rugged southwest coast.
Tyler never met his grandfather; Frank Sr. died in 1988, 10 years before Tyler was born. Now, they share a place in USGA history.
“This brings me a little closer to my grandfather,” Tyler said in his acceptance speech, his proud father looking on in the background.
The young Strafaci understood the moment. He’s heard all about “curly-haired little Frankie Strafaci,” as Frank Sr. was once described by the Brooklyn Eagle, the man who reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur twice, in 1947 and ’49, but was best known in this championship for taking Arnold Palmer to the final hole in their first-round match at Country Club of Detroit in 1954. Palmer went on to win, calling the victory the “turning point of his career.”
Frank Sr. also competed in two Masters and a pair of U.S. Opens, finishing ninth in the 1937 Open at Oakland Hills. In his first start at Augusta National, in 1938, he withdrew after 54 holes in order to make his qualifier for the North and South Amateur. He won at Pinehurst No. 2 that year, and the next.
Tyler played his first North and South when he was 15 years old, and Frank Jr. wasted no time sweeping his son into the locker room to show him his grandfather’s nameplate. The rest of the week, however, was traumatizing for the high school freshman, who estimates he must’ve had 20 cameras and reporters following him that week, all wanting to ask him about his grandfather. Living up to the family name was hard.
“For a young kid, it wasn’t fair,” Frank Jr. said. “But it’s been good for him.”
Years of dealing with that inherent pressure prepared Tyler Strafaci well for what he faced at Bandon, where each of his final four matches came down to dramatic final holes. There was the Round of 16 win over Argentina’s Segundo Oliva Pinto, who lost the match at the par-5 finishing hole after his caddie committed a rules infraction by touching the sand in a bunker. And a semifinal victory over Oklahoma State’s Aman Gupta, who clawed back only to hit the lip twice in a fairway bunker at the last.
When Strafaci finally reached the championship match opposite the red-hot, smooth-swinging Osborne, who after an opening 77 had mostly rolled through the first all-exempt field in U.S. Amateur history, he just knew that he’d need to survive one more crazy finish at 18. So, too, did Yellow Jackets alum Matt Kuchar, the 1999 U.S. Amateur champion, who asked Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler to relay a message to Strafaci on Sunday. The gist: What happened to you the last few days could come in handy today.
“You know everyone in a match is going to have those nine holes where they just kick your ass,” Strafaci said. “You just don’t know when it’s going to come. I’ve come back from that before, so I knew I was playing good enough.”
Not only did Strafaci battle back from 5 down through 12 holes to enter lunch trailing by only a hole, but he also later kept his composure after hitting three shots into penalty areas on Nos. 16 and 17, and seeing his lead evaporate in thick fog that rolled in on the final nine.
The marine layer thinned out just in time, however, for Strafaci to deliver the shot of the championship – and his life: a 4-iron from 230 yards that landed 15 feet away from the hole.
“That was the first time in my life that I actually told myself I was going to hit a winning golf shot,” Strafaci said. “I stepped back, and I closed my eyes and put my hands over my eyes … and I said, ‘This is your time to hit a winning shot. Go get it.’”
While Strafaci’s second eagle putt of the match didn’t drop, he was conceded the winning birdie, the 25th of the day between the two competitors.
“I don’t know what they’re saying,” Frank Jr. said, “but this has to be one of the best played finals in U.S. Amateur history.”
If walking by Kuchar’s Havemeyer Trophy every day at Georgia Tech’s golf facility – and the legend of five-time winner Bobby Jones – inspired Strafaci, it was Andy Ogletree’s U.S. Amateur victory last summer that made him believe. Strafaci and Ogletree were members of the same recruiting class at Georgia Tech, and roommates for a few years.
If Andy could do it, he could, too.
“When anybody on your team wins something and you beat them three or four times a week, that really helps,” Heppler said. “I think Andy opened the door for these guys and Tyler stepped through it.”
Strafaci’s path, though, was starkly different from his teammate’s. Ogletree grew up the son of a grocery store owner in Little Rock, Mississippi, a no-stoplight town with just 2,000 residents. Strafaci was born in Davie, Fla., into a well-off family with a rich golf history. Frank Jr. is a CPA who now owns a hotel in the Florida Keys. Tyler’s mom, Jill, worked for the Miami Dolphins as the team’s chief financial officer. A couple of weeks before heading to Bandon, Tyler teed it up with Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino at the Strafaci’s home club, Grande Oaks in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., which is also known as the filming location for Caddyshack’s fictional course, Bushwood.
“I am very fortunate,” Tyler Strafaci said. “… My parents, they never said no to anything that I really wanted to do, but they said whatever you do, you’re going to have to earn it, and you’re going to have to push for it.”
Strafaci calls his parents “finish-what-you-started kind of people.” During an AJGA event as a junior, Strafaci broke a bone in his hand on the fourth hole, but Frank Jr. wouldn’t let his son withdraw. Tyler remembers his dad’s line, vividly: Don’t b—-, finish the round!
“My dad is just the best,” Tyler said.
Finish what you started. It’s why the younger Strafaci, after a terrible putting performance in the semifinals, worked an hour Saturday night on the practice green, the extra work paying off with a brilliant final display on the greens. It’s also why he decided to return for a fifth year at Georgia Tech, withdrawing from a one-hour seminar on graduation day to prolong his current business degree path and give himself a “stress-free” spring semester to chase a national championship.
Strafaci has already accomplished many of his other goals during what Frank Jr. can only describe as a “magical summer.” Tyler started by winning the North and South, following in the footsteps of his grandfather. He then won his very next start, at the Palmetto Amateur. And this week, not only did he become the fourth Georgia Tech player to capture the U.S. Amateur, but he also checked off another family first: qualify for the U.S. Walker Cup team.
He’ll compete next May at Seminole, just a one-hour drive from his family’s home.
“I always wanted to be the first Strafaci to make a Walker Cup,” Strafaci said, “and now that I’m on that team, I feel like I’ve made [my grandfather] proud, and I feel like it’s just unbelievable.”
As he fielded interview questions Sunday night in a suite on the top floor of Bandon Dunes’ clubhouse, Strafaci was asked how he planned to celebrate. He took one glance at Heppler, sitting to his left: “Coach, I’ll remember everything tomorrow, don’t you worry.” (If anything, the Havemeyer sitting on his nightstand the next morning should remind him.)
Frank Jr. will certainly have no trouble remembering.
“This trophy has been the holy grail for my family for over 80 years,” Frank Jr. said. “It’s something my father always felt was an empty spot in his competitive record and something that meant a lot to him.
“I think I can genuinely say that he would’ve preferred Tyler win than him.”