125 Years of Golf in America: New York December 23, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. Each week throughout 2019, the USGA highlighted how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. On Sunday, the Association officially celebrated its 125th anniversary. So fittingly, we end this year-long series with New York. 

Next Week: Series Complete 125 Years of American Golf Home

Watch: 17-time LPGA Tour winner Dottie Pepper talks about golf in the Empire State

New York’s Turnesa, Strafaci Families Make Multi-Generation Mark

By Bill Fields

 

William Turnesa (left) won a pair of U.S. Amateur titles and was the only one of seven brothers not to turn professional. (USGA Archives)

When Marc Turnesa won a PGA Tour event in 2008, he was continuing a family tradition begun by his great-uncle, Joe Turnesa, in 1924.

When Tyler Strafaci competed in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, he also was taking a family tradition into another century. His grandfather, Frank Strafaci, finished ninth in the 1937 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club after a victory in the 1935 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship. 

Golf is often a family affair, a passion for the game flowing like a river through generations. Certain families are drawn to golf, none more than the Turnesa and Strafaci clans of New York, each of whom made a large impact on the game in the early and middle portions of the 20th century and more recently.

“It was really cool to add a little bit to the Turnesa legacy,” said Marc, 41, who is a real estate broker after his playing career was cut short by back problems. “It was pretty gratifying to follow in the footsteps of my family members.”

There were seven Turnesa brothers, six of whom turned professional, making their mark on tour or in club positions. The youngest, William P. “Willie” Turnesa, was one of the country’s finest amateurs.

In addition to his 15 tour victories, Joe Turnesa was runner-up to Bob Jones in the 1926 U.S. Open at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, and lost in the final of the 1927 PGA Championship (then a match-play competition) to Walter Hagen. Mike Turnesa won six Tour events and also was a runner-up in the PGA. Jim Turnesa finally won a Wanamaker Trophy for the family at Big Spring Country Club in Louisville, Ky., in 1952, one of two Tour titles. Phil, Frank and Doug Turnesa were prominent professionals at New York clubs.

Six Turnesa brothers (from left to right), Douglas, Phillip, James, Frank, Joseph and Michael, became prominent pros. (USGA Archives)

Willie Turnesa, the last surviving brother, who died at 87 in 2001, won the U.S. Amateur in 1938 at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club and in 1948 at Memphis (Tenn.) Country Club. He also won The Amateur Championship, conducted by The R&A, in 1947. Willie was a member of three winning USA Walker Cup Teams (1947, 1949, 1951), serving as a playing captain in his final stint at Royal Birkdale in England.

He was nicknamed “Willie the Wedge” by British golf writer Bernard Darwin because of skillful bunker play in his 8-and-7 victory in the 1938 U.S. Amateur final over B. Patrick Abbott. Turnesa was in 13 bunkers during the 36-hole match, but was rescued by his short game, one-putting 15 times.

“The greens were so fast,” Turnesa told Senior Golfer magazine in 1996. “But the greens never bothered me. I thought I could make everything – and I almost did.”

The only Turnesa brother to attend college (Holy Cross), Willie was instrumental in many New York-area students being able to get an education. In 1956, with his good friend Udo Reinach, he co-founded the Westchester Caddie Scholarship Fund, which has grown into one of the largest and most successful in the country. It has awarded more than $21 million in scholarships, and currently there are 280 caddie scholars receiving more than $1 million in annual aid.

The legacies of the Turnesas and Strafacis are indelible on golf in New York and elsewhere, examples of how the game can cast a spell on people even when their backgrounds don’t make it easy.

Vitale and Anna Turnesa moved to New York City from Italy in 1904. Vitale later ventured to Elmsford, N.Y., in Westchester County, to visit a cousin. At the time, Fairview Country Club was under construction, and he landed a job as a laborer, helping build the course and eventually becoming the greenkeeper. He  settled his family into a small home where all the sons slept in one bed.

“They were very, very poor,” Mike Turnesa’s widow, Mary, recalled in 2011. “They started out hitting golf balls with shovels. They slept in the same bed. Can you imagine that? Seven little boys – or maybe not so little – in the same bed.”

Frank Strafaci (second from right) played an exhibition match in 1935 with Babe Ruth (right), Tommy Goodwin (left) and Paul Runyan (USGA Archives) 

The Strafaci family was of modest means as well. Frank and his four brothers grew up on a small farm owned by their father, Joseph, in Brooklyn near Dyker Beach Golf Course. The siblings were exposed to the game as caddies and they all became competitive amateur golfers, especially Frank.

“Little Frankie Strafaci,” as New York sportswriters often called him, stood only 5-feet-6, but had a complete game. Strafaci won the Metropolitan Golf Association Amateur a record seven times between 1938 and 1954, the Long Island Amateur five times, the North & South Amateur twice (1938 and ’39) and the 1937 Hochster Memorial.

“He was a little guy, but he made his presence felt wherever he was,” son Frank said of his father, who died in 1988. “My dad was a great storyteller who could light up a room. He loved the game late into his life. He was a dreamer who loved to practice and always believed he’d find the magic again.”

Frank settled in south Florida in the late 1950s and was the longtime director of golf at the Doral Resort, also serving as tournament director of the annual PGA Tour stop. He nicknamed the course the Blue Monster and had an idea to promote it during the tournament.

“He was going to put an inflatable dragon in the lake at the 18th hole and have it pop out of the water,” said Frank, “but the Tour didn’t want anything to do with it.”

The younger Frank also played in multiple USGA championships, and his wife, Jill, was a talented amateur who competed for the University of Florida in the mid-1970s. Tyler, one of their two sons, is currently a senior on the Georgia Tech golf team and well aware of his family’s golf heritage. When he was 14, Tyler and his dad traveled to Brooklyn and played golf at Dyker Beach with some of their Strafaci relatives.

An academic All-American, Tyler has professional ambitions but intends to remain an amateur with hopes of making the 2021 USA Walker Cup Team, a competition scheduled May 8-9 at Seminole Golf Club. “That’s 100 percent the goal now,” said Tyler, who was invited to the practice session for the 2019 Walker Cup. “Before I turn pro, I really want to make the Walker Cup Team, something my grandfather never did. He had a really good chance, but didn’t get on a team.”

Frank Sr. died a decade before Tyler was born. But Tyler has seen the record book and heard the stories, much the way Marc Turnesa did at Knollwood Country Club, where his grandfather, Mike, was the head pro for 44 years.

“If I grow up into what I think I can be, it’s going to be pretty special,” said Tyler. “I’m trying to fill some big shoes. Hopefully, I can catch up to Grandpa Frank’s standards.”

Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.