Strafaci takes both Georgia Tech and family legacies to this Masters

Tyler Strafaci, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion by way of Georgia Tech, tees off on No. 10 for some back-nine practice at the Masters.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”
Tyler Strafaci, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion by way of Georgia Tech, tees off on No. 10 for some back-nine practice at the Masters. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

AUGUSTA – The Strafaci family connection to the Masters dates back to before this little flower show was even called the Masters. That said, some traditions Tyler Strafaci won’t be following this week. Like withdrawing in mid-tournament to seek a better place to play.

“If I did that, I don’t think I would ever be invited back,” he said with a smile.

“So, it’s changed a lot. It’s cool to see how it’s gone through history and just the prestige of the event. I was very shocked when I understood the reasoning why he withdrew.”

Back in 1938, just four years after the first “Augusta National Invitation Tournament” and only one year before that unwieldy title was shortened to the Masters, Frank Strafaci Sr. did indeed up and leave the Sistine Chapel of golf tournaments early. Only it wasn’t that then. Frank Sr. wasn’t playing very well (74-74-82). And he needed to get on down the road to the North & South Amateur, which he considered more important to his amateur resume. (And, indeed, he won the thing). Times and perceptions have changed just a bit, huh?

With the exception of one impetuous turn off the property, Tyler Strafaci will walk in the footsteps of his grandfather this week at the Masters. As an amateur and the taproot of a golfing family tree, Frank Sr. played in two of these. He hung for all of 1950′s event, although it wasn’t pretty. He finished 36 over for four rounds.

The connection was made all the more personal this week when archivists at Augusta National unearthed the hand-written letters Frank Sr. had written the club to accept his two invitations to play. The club mounted them, framed them and gifted them to the family. Around here, they take their history - even the relative footnotes to all the bigger stories that live here - quite seriously.

Frank Sr. died before he ever got to meet his grandson. To Tyler, the second consecutive Georgia Tech player to win the U.S. Amateur and thus earn a start at the Masters, he was this quasi-mythical figure. An Italian immigrant family’s bridge to the American Dream. The owner of the big round bronze 1950 Masters competitors badge that always drew his eye when he was in his father’s office (don’t touch, his father told him, but he’d hold it when the coast was clear). The smiling host posing with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and Babe Zaharias while director of golf at Miami’s Doral back in the 1950s and ’60s.

If only his grandfather could see Tyler now. Maybe Frank Sr. would recognize a lot of himself in the 22-year-old sizing up Augusta National for his Thursday tee time with defending champion Dustin Johnson.

“They’re very much alike,” said Tyler’s father, Frank, who’s here this week as swing coach and support staff. “Both of them are really good with people but at the same time kind of private. (Tyler) has his intensity about him, a single-mindedness and focus.”

And granddad would be so very pleased. “Knowing my dad,” Frank said, “he would have genuinely preferred that I do better in the game than him and certainly his grandson, too. This would have been a real thrill for him. He would have taken a lot of satisfaction in this.”

“It brings me closer to him,” said the grandson.

Tyler and his grandfather share the bond of North & South Am championships. Frank Sr. won the U.S. Amateur Public Links in 1935. Tyler took the U.S. Amateur title in August, a year after Tech’s Andy Ogletree won. Including Matt Kuchar and Bobby Jones, that’s four Yellow Jackets sharing that weighty win. With degree in hand, Strafaci has since left Tech and moved to south Florida, keeping his amateur standing long enough to play here and in May’s Walker Cup.

His onetime roommate at Tech, Ogletree has shown Strafaci the way. The low am in the November make-up Masters, his college buddy texted him this week to remind him to enjoy every moment, both the good and the stressful.

Strafaci’s Augusta National education once centered on a photo in his boyhood room of the crow’s nest – the clubhouse attic space where the club puts up amateurs during the tournament. He stayed there Monday night.

It continued as he was preparing to sign with Georgia Tech, when he at first rejected the invitation to take a drive over to Augusta to watch a Masters. With much bravado he declared he wasn’t going to set foot on the course until he was playing in the tournament. Tech coach Bruce Heppler told him that was about the dumbest thing he’d ever heard. So, the kid went and had a grand time.

And now, after playing a couple rounds at Augusta as a Yellow Jacket and getting in his allotted practice rounds in advance of this week, Strafaci’s work toward a Masters degree gets very real.

While he injured himself in mid-February, suffering a sprain of joint connecting the sternum to the collarbone, Strafaci says he is as fit as can be for this week.

“I’m hitting it really good,” he said. “I feel healthy. My mind is clear, and so there’s no excuses for playing bad golf this week. I mean, I put all my work in. I fully expect to go out and compete.”

As COVID wiped out other amateur qualifying events around the world, Strafaci will be joined by only two other ams this week – tied for the least number ever. As part of that small tournament within a tournament, he is trying on a mindset that should serve him well.

Frank Sr., can you hear this? You’d love what your grandson is saying now:

“This will be my only time playing the Masters as an amateur, so I’m going to use every bit of it. I’m just going to be 22 years old and just have a good time.

“I’m competing for the love of the game this week, which is great. I’m an amateur. We (he and the other two here) are going to have a great opportunity to just compete and have fun with nothing to lose. It’s probably going to be the last time that’s going to happen for quite some time – other than the Walker Cup – where it’s just for the purity and love of the game.”

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