Age Change Provides Second Chance at Junior Amateur Glory July 16, 2017 | Andover, Kan. By Stuart Hall

Tyler Strafaci thought his U.S. Junior Amateur career was over until the USGA changed the age limit last July. (USGA/Darren Carroll)

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Tyler Strafaci’s storyline has the makings of a good riddle.

The 18-year-old Georgia Tech sophomore is two years removed from his last U.S. Junior Amateur Championship appearance and more than a year past celebrating the end of his junior career.

Yet he is among the 156 players in this week’s 70th U.S. Junior Amateur field at Flint Hills National Golf Club.

How is that possible?

For starters, in July 2016 the United States Golf Association announced the raising of the maximum age for this championship’s competitors from 17 to 18. In Strafaci’s particular instance, his 18th birthday fell during last year’s championship – making him ineligible to play – and his 19th birthday falls the day after this year’s final.

“I have to admit it’s going to feel a bit weird,” said Strafaci, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is the grandson of 1935 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion Frank Strafaci. “When I finished playing in the [American Junior Golf Association’s] Haas Family Invitational in June [2016], we celebrated because we thought it was my last junior tournament. Then we heard the announcement and looked at the dates and it worked out.”

Strafaci, who was ousted by 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur finalist Noah Goodwin in the Round of 32 two years ago at Colleton River Plantation Club in Bluffton, S.C., is the oldest of the 51 18-year-old players in this week’s field.

Eighteen-year-olds have never been eligible since the U.S. Junior Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior championships were first played in 1948 and 1949, respectively. The USGA also lowered the maximum Handicap Index® requirements for both championships and reduced sectional qualifying for the U.S. Junior Amateur from 36 to 18 holes.

“At the end of the day, we really wanted to align ourselves better with the junior golf community,” said Greg Sanfilippo, director of the U.S. Junior Amateur, who added that surveys of players, coaches, officials and even parents showed an overwhelming desire to attract the best possible talent to the championship.

“They wanted the best players playing in this field. They wanted to play the best and have the toughest challenge they could possibly have. By including 18-year-olds, we have strengthened the competition.”

John Pak, like Strafaci, is getting a second chance at a last chance. Pak, 18, of Scotch Plains, N.J., who will attend Florida State University in the fall, lost to Goodwin in last year’s semifinals.

“I think it’s going to be more competitive, for sure,” said Pak, one of five golfers making their fourth U.S. Junior Amateur appearance. “I think having that extra year of experience, though, will make a difference.”

Other notable 18-year-olds in the field include reigning champion Min Woo Lee; Noah Norton, the runner-up in this year’s California Amateur; and local Wichita product Wells Padgett.

The presence of 18-year-olds increased the field’s average age about six months, from 16.31 to 16.99.

Pak acknowledges the difference a year can make, admitting that he is physically stronger and more mentally prepared, and that he can also draw on last year’s run through the bracket.

Strafaci estimates gaining 20 to 30 yards of distance since his appearance in 2015, and believes any similar gains made by his 18-year-old peers should prove advantageous on the 7,049-yard course.

But he does not underestimate the young pups.

“A lot of the kids in the tournament I already know and have played a lot of golf with them the past couple of years,” he said, “and vice versa. They know who we are, so it should not be that big a difference except for that added year of experience. They are just as talented.”

With a year of college under his belt, Strafaci realized how his maturity can be advantageous.

“The best way to put it is like this: as junior golfers, we are boys, we’re becoming young men,” he said. “When I got to Tech, the first day coach [Bruce] Heppler did a great job of saying he expected us to become men right off the bat. And I think that’s a real difference because I learned to use my time; I was around a group of guys who have the same aspirations as me and it’s just a healthy environment.

“And now I have a more mature outlook on the game and how I prepare and I no longer have excuses. I hold myself accountable for pretty much everything I do.”

Just how much added experience makes a difference will bear out in the coming week.

“These are the best of the best and it’s match play, so anything can happen,” Strafaci said.

Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites. 

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