AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP)There’s a bronze medal that Tyler Strafaci’s father has kept in his office for years. It’s strictly off-limits, not to be played with.
Strafaci hasn’t always adhered to that policy.
”I’ve gone there and touched it a few times,” he said.
The medal is a prized family artifact. It’s Frank Strafaci Sr.’s contestant badge from the 1950 Masters. And this week, Tyler Strafaci will tee it up on the same Augusta National grounds where his grandfather played three generations ago.
Strafaci is the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and one of three amateurs in this year’s Masters. He’ll play the first two rounds with defending champion Dustin Johnson, and he’ll do so with his late grandfather – whom he never met – in mind.
”The whole Strafaci family is an American dream,” he said.
He explained it like this: The family arrived in the U.S. from Italy, settled in New York and started from nothing. Frank Strafaci became an elite amateur golfer, winning the U.S. Public Links title in 1935, finishing ninth in the 1937 U.S. Open and qualifying for two Masters.
The first of those was in 1938, when he withdrew during the tournament because he felt compelled to defend his title in the North and South Amateur. He thought that would enhance his chances of fulfilling one of his dreams by playing in the Walker Cup.
”It just shows how different the tournament has changed over the years where my grandfather actually withdrew from the Masters to play in a tournament other than the Masters,” Tyler Strafaci said. ”If I did that, I don’t think I would ever be invited back.”
Frank Strafaci eventually became director of golf at Doral. He played Arnold Palmer in the U.S. Amateur, Palmer’s final event before turning pro. He was good friends with Babe Zaharias. He rubbed elbows with Jack Nicklaus, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
And now, 71 years after the elder Strafaci last played the Masters, his grandson gets a turn. Tyler Strafaci has played the course several times already, after backing off his plan to never come to Augusta National until he qualified for the Masters. Turns out, when one plays college golf at Georgia Tech – the school where Bobby Jones, the founder and one of the designers of Augusta National, went – one plays the course.
Strafaci figured that out right away when he told Georgia Tech coach Bruce Heppler during Masters week that he was committing to the Yellow Jackets.
”Are you going to the Masters?” Heppler asked.
”No, I’m going to wait till I play in the golf tournament,” Strafaci said.
”That’s probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” Heppler replied.
Strafaci went, and now, he’s playing for real. His Georgia Tech roommate, Andy Ogletree, played it last year – he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion – and won low amateur honors. Strafaci is savoring this chance and said he was planning to stay Tuesday night in the Crow’s Nest, the part of the clubhouse devoted to housing amateur players during the tournament.
”This will be my only time playing the Masters as an amateur, so I’m going to use every bit of it,” Strafaci said. ”I’m just going to be 22 years old and just have a good time.”
As an amateur, he’s not playing this week for money. The low amateur player each year at the Masters gets a sterling silver cup as his prize, provided that he makes the cut after 36 holes. Tiger Woods has gotten that award. So have Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Matt Kuchar.
Strafaci won’t have to overcome huge odds or a big field to be low amateur, since he’s one of only three in the Masters this year; Joe Long got in by winning the British Amateur and Ollie Osborne made it because he was the runner-up to Strafaci at the U.S. Amateur.
There has never been a Masters with fewer amateurs than in this year’s edition. There have been other years with three, most recently 2008. In every year since, until now, there’s been between five and seven amateurs invited.
”It’s just cool to be here,” Strafaci said. ”Again, I’m going to have fun. And all that stuff about my grandfather and Andy playing, it just makes the experience way cooler, and I’m glad they did. It’s probably going to make my experience way easier here because I’ve learned so much about it through Andy and people that played in the past.”
Strafaci is about to turn pro and will do so after the Walker Cup. His grandfather never got to represent the U.S. in that competition, so Strafaci making that team finally fulfilled that part of the legacy.
”He had quite the unbelievable career coming from no money,” Strafaci said. ”He was very inspirational. So just being in the Masters and playing a tournament that he did, it’s a dream come true. It brings me closer to him. I would have loved to meet him, but as my father says, he would have much rather me play in the Masters than him.”
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