A Tale of Two Championships – or, 'Oh that's right, this is why we love golf'

By a quirk of fate, of timing, of necessary scheduling, of COVID-19 (for in this tumultuous year, everything seems shadowed and alchemically altered by this nefarious virus), the Washington Men’s Amateur (the premier championship in the state) and the U.S. Amateur (the premier championship in the country, if not the world) were both held during the same week – last week – and both held in our same Northwest region.

And, come to think of it, both held on links (or links-style) courses – the three-day Washington Men’s Amateur held at Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash., and the seven-day (with stroke-play and match-play) U.S. Amateur being held on the Bandon Trails and Bandon Dunes courses at Bandon (Ore.) Dunes Golf Resort.

As I watched these two championships – in person at the Washington Amateur at Chambers Bay, and on TV with its glorious aerial coverage the U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes – the feeling and the sentiment that emanated from the players, as well as the two championships’ organizers, was joy. The joy of being on a golf course, of being able to come together with people who have that same thing inside themselves.

The joy of playing golf was seen on players faces throughout the duration of the Washington Men’s Amateur.

Because of the pandemic, there have been so few opportunities for tournament-caliber players to compete. And the long shutdown, and the sheltering-in-place, and the self-quarantining, and the cancelation of seasons, and the slipping-away of time and of youth – all of it, all of it – have worn everyone down.

Worn us down to the point where all has been stripped away, and there is nothing remaining except the simple pleasure of playing a beloved game – of hitting a bucket of balls in the cool of the evening, of talking trash with your best friend while walking down a fairway, of hearing the soft “clang” of your clubs as you haul them out of your trunk, of the smell of a freshly-mowed putting green.

In the Washington State Amateur, young Sean Kato of Redmond, Wash., a past Washington State Junior Champion and now a rising junior on the Oregon State University men’s golf team, went wire-to-wire in winning the championship. He had a commanding five-shot lead entering the final round, squandered it away and fell into a three-way tie for the lead with three holes to play, and then birdied two of the last three holes to win by a single shot.

In his post-round interview, what was evident from Kato was the genuine joy he felt in winning the championship, and the appreciation of playing the game. The joy of winning, the joy of competing, the joy of playing. There was no artifice in his reaction, as though he were playing the game for the first time, or the last time.

In the U.S. Amateur – which was conducted without gallery, without volunteers, without qualifying for entry, and with only the bare minimum of staff, all thanks to COVID – Tyler Strafaci, a senior at Georgia Tech, striped a 245-yard 4-iron through the gloaming and fog of the Oregon Coast on the par-5 36th hole of the final match, and his two-putt birdie won the hole and the match.

In his emotional trophy-presentation speech following the match, young Tyler thanked his father Frank Jr., who caddied for him all week; his mother Jill, one of the few spectators allowed on the course; and his late grandfather Frank Sr., who had won the 1935 U.S. Amateur Public Links. It had been a spectacular match, with Tyler at one point being 5-down early, and the match had been tied when he and his opponent, Ollie Osborne of Reno, Nev., stood on the tee of the 36th hole, leading to Tyler’s clinching 4-iron shot.

Tyler Strafaci poses with his family after winning the U.S. Amateur. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

Earlier this summer he won the prestigious North & South Amateur, which his grandfather had also won. Tyler had intended to turn professional a few months ago, skipping the summer’s amateur events. But COVID changed all that, so he altered his schedule and his plan, and the arc of his life changed.

It was an eerie, intimate, beautiful setting, at the close of the match – the spectator-less landscape, the gloaming, the muted sound because of the fog, just a handful of staff following the match. And all of it happening on a remote links course perched along the cliffs overlooking the rugged coastline of the Pacific Ocean.

And everyone seemed to look at each other, as if to say, “We are fortunate to be here, to be able to be involved with this game, during these uncertain times.”

It was a good week for golf. It brought a renewed sense of why we play this game.

Tom Cade is the editor of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, which is published by the Pacific Northwest Golf Association (PNGA). He is also the senior director of communications for the PNGA and Washington Golf. From 2010-2015 he served as president of the Northwest Golf Media Association, and in 2016 received the NWGMA Distinguished Service Award. He was the editor and publisher of America’s St. Andrews, the best-selling book about Chambers Bay and the 2015 U.S. Open. He also was editor of the Centennial history book for Inglewood Golf Club (published 2019). He is a regular member of the Golf Writers Association of America.