Frank Strafaci, Sr. was a friend to many. It was my good fortune that he was a friend to me as well.
I met Mr. Strafaci at a Tourney in South Florida in early 1980. He convinced me to request an Invitation to the North & South Amateur in Pinehurst. I did so, it was one of the best breaks in life… as Pinehurst became like a second home to me thereafter.
Mr. Strafaci (he always said to me… “Call me Frank!”, so I did, but he was always Mr. Strafaci to me) was an annual legend in Pinehurst during the North & South Amateur. As Past Champion (twice, back to back, 1938 and 1939) he was allotted an annual exemption into the Match Play (the 128 Player field in the early 1980’s). He came and competed into his Senior Years, playing heads up against the Kids.
I met the gentleman again in 1981. I was about to celebrate my 22d birthday, and checked into the Pine Crest Inn (Bob Barrett’s place) for the two weeks of the N&S, and learned that I was assigned the top bedroom across the street, in Peter’s old room. As I hauled my clubs and bags thru the parlor into the stairwell, this old gent was watching TV, and laughing so hard I had to come back downstairs and see what was so funny. Frank was watching ‘Young Frankenstein’ and ‘Used Cars’ back to back on a brand new channel called HBO, and roared at the various comic scenes, probably hardest at the Dog Toby letting loose on a sleeping Big Jim the Mechanic.
Frank & I had dinner that night together, and he was the one that clued me in to Chef Carl’s “Coquilles St. Jacques” (scallops en casserole), which became my favorite dish from that day forward. Frank became my normal dinner companion during my N&S years, including the best night I ever had back then, in 1984, when my own Father came to see me play my last N&S, and Frank and Bill and myself enjoyed the scallops while Frank told about 37 stories, my Dad told maybe 9, and I didn’t say a word. I just smiled.
Dad had been in the Pacific in WWII, Army Air Corps Line Chief Sergeant (Mechanic) on Johnston Island. Frank was in the Pacific in the Army too, also a Sergeant, and told of his battle experiences in the wave ahead of General Douglas MacArthur in the retaking of the Philippines. He also told many of his experiences playing top Amateur Golf over the decades, including stories about Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, the real Titan’s of Golf. The stories of Frank of the experiences he had 40 years prior seemed like ancient history to a kid like me then, but as I was a history (life & golf) student all my life, I just soaked it all in.
I got lucky and qualified in a playoff in 1981, so I got to see that magnificent #2 Course for the first time, in a practice round with Frank in the group right behind me. Afterwards, as we met in the Pine Crest’s Mr. B’s lounge (not sure it was named that at the time), Frank commented on my round and preparation, as he was watching when the play was stalled by groups ahead. He noted and commented on my creation of my PH#2 Notebook that day, remarking that he had never seen anyone so prepared to learn a golf course… and do it so quickly. His compliments on my game and my approach were real boosters for a kid with no big accomplishments.
I remember one dinner in particular, Frank related to me, when asking me what I thought the greatest accomplishment in Golf History was… I said I thought it was Ben Hogan never finishing out of the Top 10 in the USGA Open, from 1940 to 1960, including Five Wins. Yup, Five. 1942, 1948, 1950, 1951, 1953. Plus, a playoff loss in 1955. Frank then told me he dropped out of the US Open in 1940 specifically to get Ben Hogan into the field, as he was the alternate that year. Amazing story, and I was shocked by it at the time, but as the years wore on, I understood it better and better. Frank did what was good for the game, all the time. He gave Hogan a break before Hogan was a legend, and he surely did not have to do it. But he did. Amazing gesture.
He also told me about his 1954 match with Arnie in Detroit, in the US Am. Frank lost to Arnie 1 Down after 18. My Dad was there watching that week, following Palmer… and another gentleman I knew well later, Jack Veghte, at age 17, took Arnie to the end in his match.
In the following three years after 1981, we played a practice round each time… a real joy to see him compete with kids 40 years younger while doing so. Frank’s encouragement of me, and a putting tip he gave me (Pinehurst #2 had grainy bermuda greens then), helped me get to the Quarterfinals in 1982. He told me to grip down an inch, slow down my putting stroke, and take it back farther, and for me to get everything to the hole. It helped.
One year, his son Frank Jr. was coming in to compete, and Frank Sr. asked me to play a practice round with him, to help Frank Jr. learn a bit about Pinehurst, and maybe more. I was happy that he asked, and made another friend that day. Frank Jr. had a great career in Amateur Golf, both as a player and administrator, and no doubt touched people much as his father did.
Golf, to me, was always about the gentlemanly aspects of the game. In those days, it surely was a real gentleman’s game and sport. It was… because of Truly Gentle Men like Frank Strafaci, Sr. Frank passed decades ago, but he lives on here in memories of those, like me, that treasured the experience of knowing him. That he is on the Green in Heaven with Hogan and my Dad is a great consolation… can’t wait to join them.
Frank Sr.’s grandson Tyler Strafaci won the North & South this past year, and capped off a great year with an amazing performance in capturing the USGA Amateur title as well. Frank Sr. & Jr. both embodied what it means to be terrific gentlemen, and no doubt young Tyler’s greatest achievement will be his true lifelong gentleman’s nature as well, when his final scorecard is filed one day.