Perhaps it is not surprising that Frank Vana Jr., fell hard for golf as a youngster. After all, his family owned the Bonnie Brae Driving Range off Rte. 20 in Sudbury, Mass., a small town about 20 miles west of Boston, and he spent a good part of his youth working there. Mowing grass and picking up golf balls and filling them into the small metal buckets he sold from behind the counter. When he wasn’t on the clock, Vana also hit lots of shots, off the hard rubber weave mats made from old tires, the ones that left indelible black scuffmarks on the bottom of his clubs.
But no one could have predicted back then how good a golfer Vana would become. Or imagined that he would eventually win two Massachusetts Amateur Championships and seven state Mid-Ams. No one had any idea at the time that he would be named the Massachusetts Golf Association’s Amateur Player of the Year nine times, and its Player of the Decade twice, from 1990-1999 and then 2000-2009. Or that Vana would qualify for 10 U.S. Amateurs and an equal number of Mid-Ams.
Bottom line, the boy who once toiled at Bonnie Brae went on to become the dominant player in Massachusetts golf for a 20-year stretch – and among the best amateur golfers in Bay State history. And while it has been five years since he won his last MGA Player of the Year honor, the nearly 50-year-old Vana continues to be a strong competitive force. As Joe Sprague, executive director of the Massachusetts Golf Association, says: “Frank can still flat out play.”
Vana first began playing tournaments with any regularity when he was in high school. “My school didn’t have lacrosse in the spring, which I had been playing, so I joined the golf team,” he recalls. “I had been playing a fair amount in the summers because my parents had gotten me a junior membership at a local country club.”
After high school, Vana went to West Point for two years, where he played hockey and golf and helped his golf squad win the MAC Conference championship his sophomore year. Then, he transferred to Assumption College in Worcester, Mass., joining that golf team as well. He graduated in 1986 with a B.S. degree in Economics.
“I remember playing in the NCAA Division II national tournament right after I graduated,” he says. “They had put together an East/West All-Star team, and I was on the squad for the East. My partner in my first match was Lee Janzen, and he went on to win the individual title by something like 10 strokes.”
Vana went into the insurance business, which not only gave him a living but also the flexibility to continue playing competitive golf. He played a lot, too, anywhere from 15 to 20 tournaments a year, mostly in Massachusetts but occasionally in out-of-state events like the Azalea, the Terra Cotta and the Northeast Amateur.
“I never really gave much thought to turning pro. I just liked that I was able to find a balance between work and golf,” Vana says.
Vana’s best playing memories? Winning back-to-back Massachusetts Amateurs. The year he won the second of those championships, in 2004, he qualified for the Deutsche Bank Open, playing two rounds with Jason Dufner and Trevor Immelman. Making it to match play in the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, with his father, Frank Sr., on his bag and his mother, Debbie, in the gallery. He lost in the first round to future British Open champion Ben Curtis.
Vana’s life has long been intertwined with family and golf, even after his father sold the driving range in 1983 and went into real estate. And it continues to be that way. Twice married, Frank Jr., is the father of three children, two of whom are the product of his union with Beckey Blaeser, who also is director of communications for the MGA. So, he sees her at most of the golf tournaments he enters, and occasionally has to submit to interviews with her when his rounds are done. They used tee it up fairly often together, but that has happened a lot less frequently now that they are parents of children ages 7 and 4.
“These days, we mostly go to driving ranges together,” says Vana, who now runs an automotive fleet remarketing business and lives with his family in North Andover, Mass. “We take the kids down to hit balls, and I laugh when I see what’s going on because I know so well all the things that happens behind the scenes at driving ranges.”
He also cannot help but think of Bonnie Brae, and the place where he first honed his love for the game.
“It’s funny,” he says with a chuckle, “how things come around full circle.”
Funny, to be sure. But not surprising.