Tech’s Strafaci fulfills a Masters dream, now plays for U.S. Am title

Tyler Strafaci plays his third shot at the 11th hole during the semifinal round at the 2020 U.S. Amateur Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore.

Credit: USGA Museum

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Tyler Strafaci plays his third shot at the 11th hole during the semifinal round at the 2020 U.S. Amateur Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Ore.

Credit: USGA Museum

Georgia Tech’s Tyler Strafaci was cruising merrily along through the first 12 holes of his U.S. Amateur semifinal match Saturday, 4 up with seven holes to play. From as far away as Oregon’s Bandon Dunes Golf Resort he already was smelling the azaleas of Augusta in April’s bloom.

It is golf’s unpardonable sin to wander so far from the next shot. But Strafaci couldn’t help himself.

U.S. Am finalists, after all, traditionally earn entry to the next year’s Masters. Strafaci’s late grandfather Frank Sr. played in that most green major three times, and for Tyler the urge to get there was almost at the level of primal instinct.

“As a kid I always wanted to play in the Masters, that’s all I ever thought about as an amateur. I always wanted to do it for my grandfather,” Strafaci said.

Let the record show that the 22-year old did indeed punch his ticket to the 2021 Masters and U.S. Open (a tournament he played in 2018), but not until the cruise turned into all kind of trials and tribulations.

By the 17th hole, all his advantage had been squandered as Oklahoma State’s Aman Gupta evened their match. But Gupta then failed twice to escape a fairway bunker on No. 18, his audible anguished cry of, “Dude, what’s happening?!” on the second attempt serving to signal Strafaci’s 1-up victory.

Strafaci will attempt to become the second straight Tech golfer to win amateur golf’s most coveted title, repeating the 2019 deed of Andy Ogletree. Two other pretty fair players of Tech descent — Bobby Jones and Matt Kuchar — also have U.S. Am titles.

In Sunday’s 36-hole final, he’ll face SMU’s Ollie Osborne, who defeated UNC-Charlotte’s Matthew Sharpstene 4 and 2 Saturday.

The weirdest thing, Strafaci said 20 minutes after Gupta conceded the final hole, was that for as much as he was letting the Masters mess with him during the round, he barely gave it a thought afterward.

“I was 4 up and stupid me, I got ahead of myself,” Strafaci said. “After all that on 18, I didn’t think about (the Masters) at all. I got put in my place and got brought back down to Earth — and maybe that was the thing I needed.”

Before Saturday’s match, Strafaci consulted with his teammate and good friend Ogletree, one Tech savvy player to another.

“I told him, ‘Bro, I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty nervous. I’ve never been in this spot before,’ ” Strafaci said.

“He was very good, he told me the other guy is as nervous if not more nervous than you are. That kind of got me in a better mindset.”

Nerves hardly seemed an issue as Strafaci staked himself to a 3-up lead after the first five holes and was 4 up after 12. A missed 8-foot birdie putt on the par 5 13th hole and some butchery of the par 3 15th — put it this way, Gupta won that hole with a double bogey — and Strafaci’s lead was down to 2 up.

Then came a brilliant birdie by Gupta on No. 16 after executing a 40-yard bunker shot to 7 feet. Then Strafaci could not make a 12-foot par-saving putt on No. 17 – putting would be an issue all day. And like that, Gupta had won four of five holes and evened the match.

You could say Strafaci’s head was spinning. This match felt even stranger to him than that of two days ago, when he won after opponent Segundo Oliva Pinto was assessed a loss-of-hole penalty on No. 18 after his caddie improperly tested the sand with his hand in a greenside bunker.

“It’s still a very weird feeling,” Strafaci said of his emotions after winning Saturday. “I’d say almost weirder than the Segundo match.”

Where Strafaci was still feeling good about himself and his game before the gaff by Segundo’s caddie, he was wavering Saturday. “I think that’s why I’m so tired now,” he said after the semi. “It took everything I had to snap out of it and flip my mindset because I was going south quick.

“I am proud of myself for hanging in there, so that’s good.”

As many other U.S. Amateur contenders can attest — as would Ogletree as well — the semifinal can be the most stressful part of the week. Because so much — the automatic entry to the Masters and the U.S. Open — rides on it.

“(Sunday) will be very nerve-wracking and I’ll have to play the best round of my life to win,” Strafaci said. “But I always thought for some reason this semi-final match in the U.S Am always had more on the line.”

Even after such a highly charged week, in which he has won his last three matches on the final hole, Strafaci looked toward Sunday’s final and said, “I got a lot left in my tank. I feel like I’m freed up a little bit. I’m ready to go. I’ve been dreaming of this moment since I was a kid and I’m ready. I put in the work. I’m excited to go be a part of a match that is a part of golf history.”

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