Good to the last shot again, Tech’s Strafaci captures U.S. Am

Credit: USGA Museum

Credit: USGA Museum

Naturally the U.S. Amateur would come down to the last hole Sunday because Georgia Tech’s Tyler Strafaci was involved. Henceforth, all who postpone victory to the last moment and prevail through either fortune’s parting smile or their own good work under the harshest pressure will be said to have pulled “a Strafaci.”

He has gone and trademarked the 18th-hole victory. Or in the case of Sunday’s U.S. Am final, the 36th-hole victory. This guy goes after major championships like he had to pay greens fees and feels cheated if he doesn’t get to play every hole.

On Sunday, during the 36-hole final against SMU’s Ollie Osborne, Strafaci had to spend hole Nos. 34 and 35 in long-grass jail, putting himself in impossible positions just to lose a two-hole advantage to come to the closing hole all even. He had Osborne right where he wanted him.

Both hit the fairway with their drives on the par-5 18th. “This is what we dream of, right?” Strafaci cheerfully asked Osborne as they strolled off the tee box.

With 246 yards to the hole, Stafaci pulled his 4-iron. Not just any 4-iron, it turned out.

His inner monologue, as he relayed afterward, went like this: “You’re going to hit it close by hitting the best 4-iron of your life. 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.’ I’ve done it a bunch of times back home, and I knew I could execute it. I trusted myself, and I did it.”

It felt pure at contact. “Please! Be good!” he ordered it while in flight.

“I knew I’d put a perfect swing on it, and that’s one of those (shots) that you make once a year that just comes out exactly how you want it and you get a little extra out of it,” he said. “It was so cool to watch. It was the coolest shaped shot I’ve ever seen, just straight with a little draw.”

As he walked behind the approach, he said to anyone who could hear him, “I’ll remember that shot the rest of my life.”

His ball came to rest 18 feet or so from the hole, a good look at eagle that turned into a conceded birdie. And when Osborne could not make a 15-footer for his birdie, Strafaci had his fourth consecutive 1-up victory in U.S. Am match play. This one was for the big Havemeyer Trophy, the one his buddy and teammate back at Tech, Andy Ogletree, had decorating his place after winning last year’s U.S. Am.

Even when in the same room with the trophy, Strafaci didn’t want to put his fingerprints on the thing until he had earned the right. “Right after he won, I saw it, and I was like, I want to win this thing so bad,” Strafaci said, while cradling the Havemeyer in his post-match news conference. “I’m not going to touch it; I’m going to do everything I can to win it.”

All week Strafaci had taken his matches to the limit, winning his last four match-play meetings 1-up. One opponent lost when his caddie foolishly felt the sand in a greenside bunker on No. 18 and was assessed a loss of hole penalty. Another turned a fairway bunker on the same hole into quicksand, failing to get out twice and was never seen again. Yet another chose to hit driver off the deck with his second shot, and the search for the ball has just now been called off.

Ah, but this last last-gasp victory was all about Strafaci and his laser-guided 4-iron.

Sunday’s extended match contained a month’s worth of tide changes:

Osborne came out throwing haymakers, a birdie-birdie beginning put him 2-up while the dew was fresh. Six-under for the morning session, he’d be 5-up on Strafaci through just 12 holes.

Strafaci didn’t wilt. He matched Osborne’s level of play and at one point at the close of the morning 18 won four of five holes to go to the break at just 1-down.

Strafaci kept up the pressure, pulled even with a 35-foot birdie putt on No. 2 in the afternoon session. And he took his first lead at No. 7 sinking a 25-footer for birdie.

Strafaci missed a 2-foot birdie putt on No. 10, potentially crushing as he wasted a chance to go 2-up.

The fog moved in, it got spooky. He didn’t even see his tee shot on the driveable par-4 14th take a curve like Kevin Harvick and settle 8 feet from the hole, from where he’d eagle.

Two-up with three to play, Strafaci ended up conceding on No. 16 and 17, so stymied was he by poor shots that found big trouble.

One way or another it just had to come down to the last hole. This was going to work out for him at the end. Down to his last chip at the blackjack table, dealt a 16, Strafaci is always going to find some way to draw a five.

There was no general admission of fans allowed to witness this last great escape, but just about anyone who mattered to Strafaci was on hand. All his immediate family was there, with his dad on the bag. As was his coach at Tech, Bruce Heppler, who flew through the night Saturday to get there and celebrate his school’s fourth U.S. Am champion. Strafaci’s late grandfather, a great amateur player who won almost every meaningful title except this one, was there in spirit. “I never met him, but this brought us closer,” Strafaci said during the trophy presentation.

Here was Strafaci’s reward for finding clarity amid the confusion of coronavirus. He put out of mind all options of going pro (the virus had scrambled that). He’d return to Tech for the coming extra year granted him because of the cancellation of the 2019-20 season. And he’d get his mind focused solely on raising his game. Saturday was Strafaci’s third amateur title in a month, and by far the biggest.

Winning this grinding tournament in any fashion is a lifetime achievement. But now Strafaci has in the bank the experience of winning the most prestigious amateur title in the most compelling kind of way.

“I’m always going to look back on (the past week) if I’m in a major and I’m even going into the last hole with someone like Brooks Koepka or Tiger or someone like that down the road,” he said. “I’m going to look back and say I’ve done this before. I’ve done it four times on the biggest stage in amateur golf. I should be ready for this. So that’s cool, that’s something I’ll never forget.”

“Winning the last four matches 1-up. It’s insane.”