#TGW: LA FAMILIA

By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word

– Tyler Strafaci is happy to be the first active Georgia Tech golfer in 20 years to earn a spot in the U.S. Open, and he’s looking forward to this week at Shinnecock Hills even more than you might think, because he’s about to attend one whale of a reunion that will supercede even a gathering with five former Tech golfers in the field.

Strafaci will meet a lot of family for the first time on Long Island, which isn’t terribly far from Brooklyn. That’s where his late grandfather made a name with golf as a family game in the 1930s and `40s.

Frank Strafaci, Sr., grew up in the New York City borough as one of five prominent amateur golfing brothers. Three times, he played the U.S. Open — finishing ninth in 1937 — and twice he played in the Masters. He won 21 amateur tournaments, moved to Florida, and ran the Florida State Golf Association and the Doral Golf Club.

Then, his son, Frank, Jr., followed as a successful amateur golfer and as an executive with the FSGA.

There will be Strafacis everywhere.

“My whole family is from Brooklyn, and I have a lot of family,” Tyler said. “I haven’t met a lot of them. They’ll probably look like my dad. The ones that I have met, they all have the same, thick Italian hair. There are going to be a lot there.”

Tyler has thick hair, although you might not assume it to be Italian. Call it dishwater blonde. He’s taller, yet you can see Frank, Sr., in him, what with prominent cheekbones that you can find in his grandfather in searching the internet.

Strafaci found his game in shooting 71-70=141 at last Monday’s sectional qualifier at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla., not far from his family home in Davie. He then won a playoff with five other golfers for the third and final U.S. Open spot out of the field of 48. Luis Gagne (138) and Tech graduate Richy Werenski (140), who lives in Jupiter, took the first two spots.

“I was very collected the whole time, `cause I pretty much didn’t know my position. The whole day, I was playing really solid,” said Strafaci, who became one of 21 players in this year’s U.S. Open to make it through both a local and a sectional qualifier. “Things really clicked in the playoff. I felt really calm. I’ve been working all year on being more aggressive.”

Werenski and Strafaci will not be alone as Yellow Jackets at Shinnecock Hills Thursday through — hopefully — Sunday.

Chesson Hadley and Matt Kuchar qualified by being in the top 60 of the World Golf Rankings as of May 21. Ollie Schniederjans made it by firing 67-71=138 to tie for 10th last Monday in Columbus, Ohio, where 14 of 120 golfers qualified. Roberto Castro took one of three spots out of a field of 48 at the Settindown Creek Course at the Ansley Golf Club in Roswell, Ga.

With all this, you might think that Bruce Heppler feels a little more like a father than he does with two highly successful children of his own.

This is the first time he’s had six former Jackets make the U.S. Open field in his 23 seasons helming Tech’s golf program. While qualifiers were going on around the country last Monday, he tethered himself to his hand-held communication device, and kept refreshing to follow along as current and former Jackets went through the paces.

“I blew my phone up. I had like seven live feeds going,” Heppler said. “It’s great … it’s great to see these guys get to do what they want to do.”

Coach isn’t looking for royalty checks. He’s hesitant to take credit for the success of his current or former players. He’s sees himself more as a shepherd than an author.

“It’s about them. Guys, you got yourself there,” the coach said. “You try to give them the things they need, let them know how to work, show them how to work.”

The USGA respects the concept of la familia. Tournament officials have paired Werenski, Castro and Schniederjans together for the first two rounds of the Open. They’ll go off the No. 10 tee Thursday at 12:52 p.m., and off No. 1 Friday at 7:07 a.m.

Leave it to Strafaci to make it more about family.

His older brother, Trent, carried his clubs at The Bear’s Club and will be on the bag at Shinnecock Hills.

His father, a CPA who played in three U.S. Amateurs and four U.S. Mid-Amateurs, and then became an executive with the Florida State Golf Association, will hoof it outside the ropes in the shadow of his boys.

His mother, Jill, who played golf for the University of Florida before working a couple decades managing the finances of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, will be there as well.

It took some serious work, yet they were all there when Tyler parred the second playoff hole at the Bear’s Club to clinch a trip to the U.S. Open.

He and Nathan Stamey birdied the first playoff hole, where four other competitors went par. That left him and Stamey, and both walked up to legitimate par putts on the 240-yard, par-3 second in the playoff.

Strafaci went first, and drained a 10-footer.

Stamey was left with about a seven-footer to continue. Putting second with Strafaci in the house, so to speak, was daunting.

“It was not an easy putt to make,” Tyler said.

And when Stamey’s ball stayed up, “I looked at my brother, and said, `Oh my gosh!’ ” Strafaci recalled.

Mom and dad were there. Barely.

Somehow over the course of 36 holes, Frank Strafaci lost track of the key to the car.

As The Bear’s Club qualifier went long and eventually to overtime, Jill Strafaci found herself in a golf cart — reserved for tournament officials — buzzing around the track with FSGA executive director Jim Demick looking for keys.

“Jim Demick heard on his radio that we were going to a second hole, and he told my mom, `We’re going; the keys can wait,'” Tyler said. “We had to call AAA the next morning.”

Buzzed to greenside, Jill got there in time to see her son become the first active Tech golfer to make the U.S. Open field since 1998, when Kuchar punched a ticket for winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur title. He tied for 14th, one stroke behind former Jacket Stewart Cink, who tied for 10th, and two strokes behind former Jacket David Duval, who tied for seventh.

Like Jill, Frank was there, too, sweating, and probably in pain.

“My dad’s getting hip replacement in August, and he can barely walk, but he walked 36 holes, and I asked him if he’s going to [the U.S. Open],” Strafaci said. “He’ll be there. He’s the best father I could ask for. He’s done so much for me.”

This will be Strafaci’s second professional tournament. He played in the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship as a reward for winning the Valspar Collegiate in the spring of his freshman season.

There will be many a Strafaci there, even more than in Jupiter — even though Frank, Sr., passed away in 1988, before Tyler was born.

You can absolutely count on mom and dad and a bigger family to wave pom-poms.

“She ran out of the cart and was bawling her eyes out,” Tyler said of his mother. “To play in the U.S. Open when you’re 19 is a pretty cool thing. My grandfather played in the U.S. Open when he was 21, and finished ninth.

“Every single [teammate] has texted me, and been very supportive. Every single one is wishing the best for me. I think it’s very special for a team to want everyone to do well.”

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