SAN DIEGO — Tyler Strafaci said it felt like the first day of school. He arrived at the Torrey Pines golf courses for this week’s Farmers Insurance Open, looked around and realized that he’s not at Georgia Tech anymore. There were plenty of recognizable faces, but there are probably some who had no idea who he is, even as the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
Then he came upon former Yellow Jackets teammate and roommate Andy Ogletree, and he suddenly had a friend for recess—or, in this case, his first-ever full practice round on the Torrey Pines South Course.
“Andy asked me, ‘Hey, do you want to go play 18 on the South?’ I was like, ‘of course,’ ” Strafaci said on Wednesday. “So playing with him really freed me up. It’s good to have some sort of common ground with people out here, and I’m sure over the next whatever events I get in this season I’ll develop some relationships and some friendships hopefully and it’ll be a good time.”
Both Strafaci and Ogletree are playing in the Farmers on sponsor’s exemptions. Ogletree, 22, the 2019 U.S. Amateur champion, turned pro late last year after earning low-amateur honors at November’s Masters. Strafaci, 22, is on a different path. He’s still an amateur, and after deciding to leave Georgia Tech before the spring schedule of his fifth year, he’s trying to get as many PGA Tour starts in as he can before the Walker Cup in May. After that, he plans to turn pro.
Strafaci’s got a nice lineup of future tour starts lined up so far: Torrey Pines, Genesis Invitational, Arnold Palmer Invitational, the RBC Heritage, Charles Schwab Challenge at Colonial, and of course, two majors—the Masters and the U.S. Open, back here at Torrey Pines in June.
“I’m probably going to be a little rusty when I tee off [on Thursday], but the quicker I get into my round the better it’s going to be,” Strafaci said. “I’m sure I’m going to have really good stretches of golf over the next few days and just learn from it and hopefully make the weekend, kind of make some noise out there. But the next four or five events are just getting my mind and game ready to where when I turn pro, I’m ready to accomplish some of my goals.”
It was not an easy decision for Strafaci to leave Georgia Tech at mid-year. After he won the U.S. Amateur in August at Bandon Dunes over Ollie Osborne in dramatic fashion on the 36th hole, he said he was thrilled to return for another year for head coach Bruce Heppler, who flew to Oregon to cheer him on. But the draw of playing in tour events became too strong, particularly with the uncertainties in the college game due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Coach, to be honest, was questioning why I was making this decision,” Strafaci said. “He thought it was best that I would come back. He kind of wanted me to be there for the young guys. But at the same time I think he knew I was ready. So I know he was proud of me for the decision I made and I know he’s in my corner. I love the guy to death.”
The Farmers will be Strafaci’s third tour start. In 2018, he got a sponsor’s exemption into the Valspar Championship and missed the cut. He qualified for the U.S. Open that year at Shinnecock Hills, but didn’t make the weekend. He spoke of not feeling like himself in either of those starts, but thinks he’ll be in a different frame of mind this time.
“I was 19 playing the tour [in the previous starts], all I was thinking about was making the cut,” Strafaci said. “And I was playing well enough to make the cut and have a pretty good finish in both of them. But I was so focused on making the cut that I kind of gravitated towards the cut line. That’s not how I usually play golf. Usually, I play golf to win and put myself in position on the last day of the tournament to have a good chance to win. That’s kind of what I’m going to do this week.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some growing pains. Winning out here’s going to take a lot better golf than winning in college or amateur golf. So I’m going to learn how to do that and hopefully I can learn how to do that very quickly so I can accomplish the goals.”