For Georgia Tech’s Tyler Strafaci, U.S. Amateur title a dream realized

Tyler Strafaci has never shied from thinking big. When he went on a recruiting trip to Georgia Tech as a high-school golf prospect, Yellow Jackets coach Bruce Heppler shared with him that, through connections, players typically are able to play at Augusta National a few times in their career.

It would seem to be a useful bauble to toss out in the process of enticing recruits. But Strafaci’s interest level was muted.

“And coach Heppler says, ‘Why?’” Strafaci’s father Frank recalled. His son’s response: “I don’t want to play (there) before it’s for real.”

When his Tech teammate and close friend Andy Ogletree won the U.S. Amateur in 2019, he kept the Havemeyer Trophy in his apartment. Strafaci wouldn’t let himself so much as graze the holy grail of amateur golf.

“I remember going over and hanging out with Andy when he first won and had his trophy there,” Strafaci said. “I was so pumped for him, but I wanted that trophy so bad. I never touched it up until Sunday.”

On Sunday, his dreams of winning the U.S. Amateur – an ambition that he had nourished since his childhood, when he watched the tournament on television every year – became a vivid reality at Bandon Dunes in Oregon. Strafaci triumphed over a 264-player field to succeed Ogletree and return the Havemeyer Trophy to Tech.

On Thursday, he sat in a rocking chair outside the clubhouse of Tech’s Noonan Golf Facility, 13 acres of greens, bunkers, hitting bays and three different types of fairway grasses squeezed in among apartment and condominium complexes in Atlantic Station.

Classes had begun three days earlier. Strafaci’s mind wasn’t quite ready for syllabi or problem sets.

“I’m just at a point right now I’m still just on cloud nine from winning the tournament,” Strafaci said.

In winning a national championship previously won by the likes of Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, extended reverie is understandable, especially given the path he traveled to capture it.

In March, the only dream Strafaci was contemplating was the one that he and his teammates were denied. The Jackets, led by Strafaci, Ogletree and fellow senior Luke Schniederjans, were among the favorites to win the Tech’s first men’s golf national championship when the coronavirus pandemic led the NCAA to cancel their spring national championships, including golf.

On Thursday at the practice facility, Strafaci pointed out the spot on the putting green when he learned the news on his phone.

“And I went in here (to the clubhouse), and I was bawling my eyes out,” Strafaci said. “That was probably the toughest moment I’ve ever had in my life, just because everything you had worked for had been taken away.”

On top of that, Strafaci’s last two events before the shutdown were perhaps his two poorest of the season. His NCAA title hopes had been dashed, his confidence was ebbing and the world was entering a strange flux.

Strafaci returned home to Davie, Fla. That’s when his parents intervened. By Strafaci’s estimation, Frank and Jill Strafaci do not mess around.

“They don’t sugarcoat anything,” Strafaci said. “(If) you’re doing something wrong, they let you know it.”

Their message to their son was simple.

“My parents sat me down and told me that you have to use this negative time and do something positive, pretty much,” he said.

Strafaci isn’t one to loaf. His accomplishments on the course – among other things, he qualified for the U.S. Open in 2018 – and two-time recognition as an All-American scholar suggest as much.

“He’s a great kid,” said Todd Anderson, Strafaci’s teaching pro since ninth grade who has worked with more than 100 PGA Tour players. “Obviously, he’s one of those kids that’s special and that’s very focused, very process-oriented, very goal-driven.”

Credit: USGA Museum

Credit: USGA Museum

Still, Strafaci, entering a chapter of life with no playbook, needed to hear his parents’ wisdom.

“On a conscious level, and I think instinctively, I knew this could be very good for him,” Frank Strafaci said. “You get something taken away that really matters to you, it’ll help put things in perspective.”

Before golf courses reopened, Strafaci found open fields and parks to practice, hitting his shots, picking up the balls and hitting them again. He hit into a net at home.

“We actually went through two nets,” Frank Strafaci said.

He also gained purpose from his decision to return to Tech for a second senior year – the NCAA had granted all spring-sports athletes an extra season of eligibility – rather than turn pro. Strafaci said that knowing he was returning and intending on leading his teammates to the NCAA title was “probably the most important thing for me during the quarantine.”

Tyler’s hunger for golf grew such that, when he was finally able to play on a course, he told his father that the mere act of tracking an iron shot through the air and following it to its landing on the green – a commonplace occurrence for a golfer not in a pandemic – was “one of the coolest things he’s ever experienced in his life,” Frank said.

By the summer, as amateur tournaments were taking place again, Strafaci returned to Tech to polish his game and reconnect with his teammates.

“I remember he was heading off to this summer and he goes, ‘Coach, it’s time for me to go win some tournaments,’ and off he went,” Heppler said.

He won two tournaments before the U.S. Amateur, including one – the North & South Amateur in Pinehurst, N.C. – that his grandfather Frank Sr. won in 1938 and 1939. They were his first tournament wins since his freshman season.

Even better, Strafaci’s father was on the bag for him. In what he recognized as his final summer as an amateur, Tyler asked his father on Father’s Day to caddie for him.

The U.S. Amateur was their final event as a team, and Strafaci made it memorable, advancing to the 64-player match-play field and winning the round of 16, quarterfinal, semifinal and championship matches on the final hole.

The shot that put him in place to win on the last hole of the 36-hole final, which was all-square with SMU’s Charles Osborne going into the par-5 hole, was a perfectly struck 4-iron from 246 yards out that came to rest about 18 feet from the hole.

Before the shot, Strafaci closed his eyes and told himself he was going to hit the best shot of his life. He stood over his Titleist ball and let it rip.

“That thing was just right at the flag and high and straight with a little draw,” he said. “It was just so pure. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to hit a 4-iron that good. It was the best 4-iron I’ve ever hit, honestly.”

On the green, Osborne conceded a birdie putt to Strafaci and then missed his own birdie attempt, wrapping up the championship for Strafaci. In front of a handful of masked spectators cloaked in the Pacific fog, Strafaci lifted his father off the ground, squeezed his brother and then mother tight before letting out a primal scream.

It was a long way from March.

Said Heppler, “It’s funny how things happen.”

A re-do of his senior season awaits. The Havemeyer Trophy occupies a place of honor in his apartment, which he shares with two friends from the team – on the TV stand.

There is more to pursue, like the NCAA title. By reaching the U.S. Amateur final, he can play in the Masters and U.S. Open in 2021. Another childhood dream of his: sleeping in the Crow’s Nest at Augusta National, the hallowed clubhouse sleeping quarters reserved for amateur players.

“A lot of (amateurs) don’t stay there during the tournament,” Strafaci said, “but there’s no way in hell I’m not staying there during the tournament. It’ll be fun. It’ll be cool.”

It is not lost on Strafaci that reaching amateur golf’s pinnacle required him to find his own way through the pandemic. His trial does not compare with that of many others, but it is his own.

“The whole COVID time really taught me how to grow up, and that’s the life lesson I needed,” Strafaci said. “So, yeah, I’m not thankful for (COVID), but I’m thankful how I’ve gone through it.”