Georgia Tech’s U.S. Am champ Strafaci tries to make best of golf limbo

Former Georgia Tech golfer Tyler Strafaci admires his work during his run to the U.S. Amateur title last year. Clyde Click / Special to the AJC
Former Georgia Tech golfer Tyler Strafaci admires his work during his run to the U.S. Amateur title last year. Clyde Click / Special to the AJC

Credit: Clyde Click

Credit: Clyde Click

It is far easier these days to identify what Tyler Strafaci isn’t than what he is.

He is not a college golfer anymore, opting to leave Georgia Tech rather than use a bonus semester of eligibility because of all the COVID-19 disruptions. He’s not a pro golfer, either, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion keeping filthy riches at arm’s length to maintain his spot in April’s Masters and May’s amateur Walker Cup competition.

But he has a tee time at Torrey Pines, so, really, how bad can life in limbo be?

“I feel like I’ve pretty much done a lot of the stuff I wanted to do in amateur golf,” Strafaci said earlier this week before his appearance at the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open. “Right now, I’m in kind of a weird position, but I feel like I’m ready to move on. But I kind of have to wait for a while before I turn pro, so I’m in kind of an interesting situation.”

Winning the U.S. Am opened some doors to him just as so many windows were closing in college golf. Strafaci has invitations to play on the big-boy tour this week in San Diego, as well as at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Genesis Invitational, the RBC Heritage and the Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial. He also has two majors – the Masters and U.S. Open – on the docket.

His old team is in a strange place, too. With a lineup that could well have contended for a national title last spring, Tech saw that promise go poof because of COVID cancellations. Likewise, this ACC season was scrapped, leaving Tech to compile a schedule of far-flung collegiate tournaments now in advance of the still-scheduled conference tournament. The Yellow Jackets just finished one event in southern California with another in Hawaii on deck. Apparently however you are serving time in golf limbo, the view always is great.

Tech golf coach Bruce Heppler tried mightily to convince Strafaci to stay around a few more months to be a leader and a bridge to the future for a team that is young and inexperienced throughout. Selfishly, Heppler wanted him to stay. But he also believed Strafaci could benefit from training with teammates and more tournament competition.

But with a degree in hand and four seasons of college golf already behind him, Strafaci was restless for something else.

“It’s always hard kind of leaving your friends and a coach that’s meant so much to you,” he said, “but it’s just one of those things, I kind of knew I was ready after talking with my parents and my support system. I just felt ready.

“It didn’t feel good leaving my roommates there and some of the guys I was mentoring on the team, but it’s what happens. We’re kind of living in a weird time and sometimes you’ve got to make somewhat of a selfish decision.”

He went back home to the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, moved out of his folks’ house, joined a golf club. “Kind of starting to be an adult,” as Strafaci put it.

Said Heppler of Strafaci, “He had a great career. He did his school stuff, he did his golf stuff, he fulfilled his commitment. He didn’t run out. What he was going to do for us was a favor, and it just got to be that the favor didn’t make any sense.”

Heppler can look at this week’s Farmers Insurance Open and dream of what might have been. For also in the field is Andy Ogletree, Strafaci’s roommate at Tech who also preceded him as U.S. Amateur champion. Also moving on from Tech was Luke Schniederjans, who by the way shot 59 at a minitour event in October.

“I have never experienced this much turnover before, but that’s what happens when you have three guys walk in and basically play every tournament from their freshman year on,” said Heppler, 26 years at Tech.

With this event being but the leadoff to a busy few months, Strafaci guessed he might be coming in a little rusty. And it showed. Looking at this as a chance to “get my feet wet and see what I’m all about,” he shot 77-75 (8 over) in the first two rounds of the Farmers, missing the cut.

At least having Ogletree around this week lent a bit of familiarity to the unforgiving surroundings of pro golf. Strafaci has two PGA starts to his credit, having qualified for both the U.S. Open and the Valspar in 2018, missing the cut in both. Trying to gain a foothold on this last rung of the ladder is the next great challenge for both former Tech players.

“I’m sure there’s going to be some growing pains,” Strafaci said. “Winning out here’s going to take a lot better golf than winning in college or amateur golf. So, I’m going to learn how to do that, and hopefully I can learn how to do that very quickly.”

Ogletree has served as a convenient template for his old teammate. First, he showed the way in winning the Amateur. That earned him a spot in the delayed November Masters, where he spent Sunday time in the Butler Cabin with champion Dustin Johnson as low amateur (shooting 2 under, a T-34).

They’re planning on holding another one of those on a more traditional April date, and Strafaci is trying hard to not get lost in the present while looking ahead.

“Yeah, it’s definitely in the back of my mind. It’s not everything I’m focused on right now, but it’s always a good thing to go to sleep at night knowing you’re playing the Masters,” he said.

With so much else undefined, Strafaci is most definitely this: A Masters invitee.

And seeing his friend distinguish himself there in November only sharpens the anticipation.

“Watching that definitely gave me some fuel,” Strafaci said. “It gave me some fuel when he won the Am because I was like, here’s a guy I’ve been competing with for four years, and he won something I’ve wanted for pretty much my whole life. That kind of lit a fire under me. I think him getting low am at the Masters kind of did the same thing.”

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