March 26, 2018
By Matt Winkeljohn | The Good Word
– These are tense times in college golf as the home stretch of the regular season is nigh, yet Tyler Strafaci has felt at home recently even while making his PGA Tour debut.
The Georgia Tech sophomore said it didn’t seem all that strange a few weeks ago when he found himself devouring biscuits alongside pro golfers.
He was, for a few days, one of them.
Strafaci played in the PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship March 8-9 at the Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor, Fla., on a sponsor’s exemption earned a year earlier when he won the Valspar Collegiate Invitational while competing as a Yellow Jacket.
“I was in the Hampton Inn with Adam Scott, Zach Johnson, Webb Simpson … you’re seeing these guys eating a Hampton Inn [free] breakfast … I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Ernie Els and I hit balls together after every round, so he came up to me one or two times and we talked.
“Patrick Reed came up to me and gave me some really good advice. Every single pro I talked to said the same thing … just play your game.”
Playing with Ben Silverman of Canada and Abraham Ancer of Mexico, Strafaci shot 75-76 over the par-71 Innisbrook course on Thursday and Friday.
At 9-over-par, he wasn’t alone in missing the cut. Former Tech standouts Chesson Hadley (8-over) and Richy Werenski (11-over) also missed out, as did Silverman and Rory McIlroy (plus-five) — one week before he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
The pros probably wouldn’t say they benefited from the experience, but Strafaci did.
Practicing and playing on the Gulf coast just north of St. Petersburg and not far from his hometown of Davie, Fla., he gained a greater sense of the world where he hopes to one day make his living.
And while he felt like a newcomer, he also could see himself fitting in on a full-time basis. The course set-up was tough, very tough, yet the professionals were quite friendly.
“To be honest, they were very — in a word — welcoming. In a college tournament, the conversations are mostly about college: ‘Are you guys having fun?’ ‘How’s your team this year?’” Strafaci said. “The conversations with them are different because they see me as a 19-year-old, and they were great. They just wanted to help me.”
From time spent on the practice range, where Els offered counsel, to the course, Strafaci soaked up knowledge.
“Ancer … he would always just ask my thought process on certain things, and give me his thought process on certain things, and we’d kind of prepare,” he said. “Everything about it was very informative.”
There were surprises along the way, like when he arrived, and, “a lady hands me a key and says ‘Your car is parked out front,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It was a brand new Lexus with a mile on it. It was awesome. It had the big Valspar [sponsor sign] on it.”
One thing was nearly impossible to conceptualize: the orbit around Tiger Woods.
“I got there Tuesday afternoon and Tiger was teeing off [for a practice round]. I went out just after him to play nine holes, and one of the greatest players of all time is in front of you,” Strafaci said. “It feels like all eyes are on you.”
Strafaci said he heard that Woods traveled each day by helicopter to and from Innisbrook, perhaps back and forth from his Jupiter Island home on Florida’s east coast.
Even after missing the cut, Strafaci and his family, girlfriend and friends stuck around to watch Tiger and others for a while on Saturday before returning to school. He made sure to connect with other Tech golfers, too. Stewart Cink went on to finish tied for 31st, Matt Kuchar tied for 40th and Ollie Schniederjans tied for 49th.
Woods finished in a tie with Reed for second place at nine-under par 275, one stroke behind Paul Casey.
“To see Tiger fist-pumping after number nine, with 20,000 people … it was cool to be inside the ropes,” he said. “I watched Ollie. I talked to Stewart Cink for about 30 minutes in the locker room, and that was probably some of the best advice I heard in my life. Me and him really clicked.”
Strafaci returned to the Tech lineup two weeks later, shooting 73-72-70 at the Valspar Collegiate on March 18-20 as the Yellow Jackets finished in fourth place at the Floridian in Palm City just a short drive north of his home town.
One day, hopefully, he will live on the PGA Tour.
Now, he’s back to being a full-time college student and athlete, working toward the Jackets final regular season tournament, the Irish Creek Intercollegiate April 7-8 in Kannapolis, N.C. Then, the ACC Championship will return to the Old North State Club in New London, N.C. from April 20-22.
Strafaci is convinced that being a student-athlete at Georgia Tech under the eye of head coach Bruce Heppler is the best preparation to become a full-time professional golfer. Nearly every PGA field has at three to six former Jackets, and that’s quite a sign.
“I’m just going to say Tech is unique in that everything we do is very demanding,” he said. “Coach Heppler has a very strict regimen. We’re waking up at 5 o’clock most mornings to work out. Our team’s good enough where you have to practice non-stop to be able to play. What we experience at Tech day in and day out is just different.
“I felt like I was on top of my things more [at the Valspar Championship], if that makes sense. Coach Heppler has been preaching since I’ve been here, ‘You’re going to be more prepared when you come out, you just don’t know it yet.’ I see when we get out there, you feel almost as mature as these guys. I can see what he’s talking about.”