Every U.S. Amateur has a player who, by great performance and more than a dash of fortune, advances deep into match play with an opportunity to claim the Havemeyer Trophy.
This year’s edition at Bandon Dunes had three, each impressive for different reasons.
It starts with the champion, Tyler Strafaci, who came into the event as one of the favorites, having won the North & South and Palmetto Amateur last month. The Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket backed that up by going on a memorable journey to the title, complete with several nerve-racking and sometimes bizarre matches.
He easily handled his opening match, but the drama came out in droves from that point forward. Strafaci (pictured above) rallied from 2 down with eight holes to play to defeat Julián Périco and then played Périco’s college teammate at the University of Arkansas, Segundo Oliva Pinto, in another intense match. Tied with one hole remaining, Oliva Pinto’s caddie tested the sand of a greenside bunker and lost his player the match, handing Strafaci the victory without either player getting to finish the hole.
Strafaci needed more late heroics to down Stewart Hagestad in the quarterfinals, 1 up, watching as Hagestad misfired with a driver off the deck on the last hole. That set up a showdown with Oklahoma State’s Aman Gupta. Although Strafaci took a 4-up lead through 12 holes, Gupta clawed back to tie the match with one hole remaining. Gupta, however, hit his tee ball into the fairway bunker and took three shots to extract himself, offering Strafaci an easy path to finish the match.
In the finale against Charles “Ollie” Osborne, Strafaci went 5 down in the morning session before storming all the way back to take control. His work with noted swing coach Todd Anderson to flatten out his swing has paid dividends and he has landed a spot on the U.S. Walker Cup team.
The victory represents the first time two different players from the same school have won in back-to-back years, as Strafaci followed Georgia Tech teammate Andy Ogletree. Strafaci’s likely invite to the Masters held particular meaning for him because his grandfather, Frank Strafaci Sr., played in the Masters in 1938 and 1950.
When Strafaci won his semifinal match, his father, Frank Strafaci Jr., pulled down his caddie bib to show a Masters logo on his shirt.
“As a kid, I've always wanted to play in the Masters, and so that's all I've ever thought about as an amateur and I've always wanted to do what my grandfather did,” Strafaci said.
Osborne, a long-hitting SMU rising junior who came into the event as the 460th-ranked amateur in the world, had a similarly circuitous route to the final match.
While he has won twice in his college career, the Reno, Nevada, resident had a 74.5 stroke average in his past 11 rounds of competition and failed to crack the top 40 in those four tournaments. When he showed up to stroke play and opened with a 5-over 77, he looked to be showing the similar poor form he arrived with.
All it took to change his momentum was a brownie sundae.
“After the first round, I was sitting there with my assistant coach, and I was like, ‘You guys want dessert?’ ” Osborne said. “And they are like, ‘I'm kind of stuffed.’ I'm like, ‘I'm going to get a brownie.’ I was feeling kind of down.”
The next day, Osborne promptly delivered 10 birdies at Bandon Trails to easily advance to match play. He had another sundae again that night and then received what will go down as the break of the tournament — he shot what would have been a 5-over 77, given normal match-play concessions, in his opening bout and still won by making a birdie on the final hole.
After that, Osborne came to play. Buoyed by his evening brownie sundae ritual, he only trailed for one hole for the entire tournament — until the afternoon 18 against Strafaci.
If those two interesting paths to the finals weren’t enough, one of the other semifinalists also benefited from taking advantage of some great luck. Gupta, the No. 500 player in the world, only got into the field because world No. 2 Ricky Castillo withdrew three days before the tournament began. He took full advantage of the opportunity, opening with a 7-under 64 and then establishing himself as a feisty underdog throughout match play. His defining moment came in the quarterfinals against former U.S. Junior Am champ Michael Thorbjornsen, winning holes 11, 14, 15 and 17 to erase a 2-down margin.
Gupta had Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton on his bag throughout match play, nearly repeating the scenario from two years ago when Viktor Hovland won the U.S. Amateur with Bratton at Pebble Beach.
“I've known and my coach has known for a while that I was good enough to do this,” Gupta said. “I'm just going to take a lot of confidence and know that I'm one of the best players in the world and it's time to start playing like it.”
One of the beauties of the U.S. Amateur is that these stories can come to light. You need the game to get there, but some positive bounces can turn a solid week into a life-changing one.