AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | Tyler Strafaci has spent the last year retracing his grandfather’s footsteps from winning the North and South Amateur to competing in the Masters Tournament. While he’s already surpassed his grandfather by winning the U.S. Amateur, qualifying for the Walker Cup team and will forge his own path as a professional, Tyler will be hard-pressed to match the “American Dream” that Frank Strafaci Sr. fashioned from whole cloth.
“I never got to meet my grandfather (who died in 1988), but he’s been a very integral part of my life,” said 22-year-old Tyler. “My grandfather came from nothing. His family came from Italy, and just came from nothing, and he built a great career, became a great amateur golfer. Played in two Masters, won the Pub Links, finished ninth in the U.S. Open.
“So he had quite the unbelievable career coming from no money. 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.”
Frank Strafaci Sr. was the Forrest Gump of golf. He grew up in an immigrant household with five brothers and two sisters on a farm in Brooklyn, New York, adjacent to a nine-hole military course that eventually became Dyker Beach Golf Club. He dominated the Metropolitan amateur golf scene and ended up a ubiquitous figure in pictures with celebrities and in historic moments.
“The stories my dad would tell were usually about people,” said Frank Strafaci Jr. “Being in that area he played with presidents, he played with mobsters, he played with just a lot of characters and historical figures through the years and characters in and out of golf. His connection with golf and its history started in middle ’30s and went through the day he died.”
Strafaci was dear friends with Babe Didrikson and also played with Babe Ruth. He played with golf-obsessed President Dwight Eisenhower and in Australia with John Wayne. He played with generations of golfing giants from Walter Hagen to Bobby Jones to Ben Hogan.
Stationed as a sergeant in the Pacific theater during World War II, his golf prowess made him a friend of generals, which is why he’s the only enlisted officer seen in newsreels traipsing through the jungle of Leyte with Gen. Douglas MacArthur when he famously returned to the Philippines.
“That picture was his singularly most prized possession,” he said of a reversed still from the MacArthur landing. “Because it meant so much to him it’s something I’ve really cherished. He got two bronze stars and never spoke about it.”
It all amounts to a pretty good life for a slightly built 5-foot-5 insurance salesman – a business he hated.
“He was able to elevate himself as a son of immigrants. He had an unbelievable life. He just did,” said his son. “He never considered himself better than anybody and certainly never considered anybody better than him. My father was a rich man without being wealthy. He lived the experiences of a wealthy person because of golf. Everybody he was around, people felt better about themselves.”
“He never told me that story about Hogan; I never understood how a man in his prime in his life would pretty much make a decision not to play.” – Frank Strafaci Jr.
Frank Strafaci Jr. was born in 1957, too late to see his father play in any Masters (1938 and 1950) or U.S. Opens (1937 and ’46) or his numerous U.S. and British Amateurs, including the 1954 matches at the Country Club of Detroit when he pushed eventual champion Arnold Palmer to the 18th hole in what Palmer said was the toughest match of his final amateur victory.
Most of the golf stories have been learned by the family through newspaper clippings since the elder Strafaci didn’t boast about his accomplishments.
In 1938, the elder Strafaci shot a pair of 74s to start the Masters just five behind eventual champion Henry Picard. But he was also in contention to be picked for the Walker Cup, so instead of finishing after a third-round 82 he withdrew to go to Pinehurst, North Carolina, to compete in the North and South, which he won in both 1938-39.
“At that time he deemed that more important for his chances to make the Walker Cup,” his son said.If withdrawing from the Masters seems hard to fathom, his tale from the 1940 U.S. Open is even more remarkable. Strafaci qualified for the national open held that year at Canterbury Golf Club in Ohio. Strafaci had met a struggling young professional in the New York area named Ben Hogan and found out that Hogan had failed to qualify and was the first alternate. A few weeks before the U.S. Open, Strafaci sent Hogan a letter encouraging him to show up in Cleveland to prepare. “I’ll see to it that you get in,” he promised.
Hogan did go to Canterbury to prepare, and when nobody had withdrawn, Strafaci withdrew himself on June 6 to allow Hogan to play. The Hawk contended and tied for fifth, sparking his Hall of Fame career that included his first three professional wins as an individual in consecutive wins shortly after that U.S. Open and nine majors including the career slam.
“He never told me that story about Hogan; I never understood how a man in his prime in his life would pretty much make a decision not to play,” Frank Jr. said. “I heard it from somebody else who sent me a copy of articles from three different papers about it and it confirmed what I heard.
“I’ve read a lot of my dad’s letters. Hogan offered him a set of irons as a sign of gratitude, but my dad refused.”
The elder Strafaci moved to south Florida in 1957 with his pregnant wife, stopping in Sarasota on the way down to win the Florida state open. Of course, when they settled down he happened to meet and befriend a man named Alfred Kaskel who founded a golf resort he named after himself and his wife, Doris. Kaskel asked Strafaci to be director of golf at Doral and run the Doral Open golf tournament, played on the course that Strafaci nicknamed the “Blue Monster.” The association gave him access to more celebrities such as Jackie Gleason, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and many others.
“That gave him the opportunity to have golf be his entire life without turning professional,” his son said.
Tyler marvels at his heritage, especially this week at the Masters.
“I mean, it’s pretty cool, kind of just the whole Strafaci family is an American dream,” he said. “Just where my grandfather and my grandmother and even my parents on my mother’s side, none of them were born in the U.S. So it was cool just to kind of be here and to see where we all came from and to have my father walking down the fairways (at Augusta), it was very emotional.”
The only thing the elder Strafaci never got to do was play for the U.S. in the Walker Cup, a slight that ate at him and possibly explains his willingness to skip that U.S. Open to let Hogan play.
“My father should have been picked for the Walker Cup in 1938 (at St. Andrews) and was devastated,” his son said. “It stuck with him the rest of his life. He wrote a letter to his friend Bill Campbell and said that was the greatest disappointment of his life.”
Tyler will play for the U.S. team next month at Seminole Golf Club, close to their home in South Florida.
“That was one of my grandfather’s goals and kind of his biggest letdowns of his life that he didn’t make the Walker Cup team. Whether he deserved it or not, that’s in history,” Tyler said. “But to have an opportunity to represent the United States in the Walker Cup is pretty cool. It’s not pretty cool; it’s awesome.”
Like his grandfather, Tyler Strafaci didn’t get to finish the weekend at Augusta this week. But he slept a night in the Crow’s Nest and soaked in the experience of another step in his grandfather’s shoes. And he’ll take home a contestant badge that can go with the big bronze “contestant” medal from 1950 with the famous Augusta clubhouse on it that sits in his dad’s office.
“He hasn’t let me touch it pretty much my whole life, but I’ve gone there and touched it a few times,” Tyler confessed. “It’s really cool just seeing that part of history in his office and where he came from. That just shows how important that golf tournament was to him.”
Top: Frank Strafaci kisses his golf ball after forcing a playoff at the 1940 U.S. Amateur. Photo: Courtesy USGA Museum
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