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Muscled Out of the Masters
John Garrity
April 06, 1998
Half a century after getting run out of the tournament, Frank Stranahan is still going strong
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April 06, 1998

Muscled Out Of The Masters

Half a century after getting run out of the tournament, Frank Stranahan is still going strong

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Clifford Roberts is dead, and Frank Stranahan has long been mute on the subject. So who's to say if we've got a 50-year-old sex scandal here? The safe and sensible thing to do is to just slide our copy of the book across Stranahan's desk. He can read the bookmarked pages for himself.

The 75-year-old market player puts his copy of Investor's Business Daily on top of a pile of securities reports. He slips on his reading glasses and studies the book's title: The Masters: Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia by Curt Sampson (Villard, $25). He looks up. "What's this?"

(Note to editor: I know space is limited, but I think this description of Stranahan is misleading. He answered the door to his Florida fairway home in a green sweater and a pair of skintight trunks exposing some very pale legs. The desk in his cluttered kitchen was covered with cardboard boxes, newspapers, stacks of envelopes and a copy of Muscle and Fitness magazine. All the vertical blinds in the house were closed.)

Hearing my explanation—that the book is an unauthorized history of me major golf championship created by Roberts and the sainted Bobby Jones, and that he, Stranahan, is a key character in Chapter 4—he opens the book to the first bookmark. "I remember," he says. "Fellow came here and asked a bunch of questions."

(Note to editor: In his book Sampson describes Stranahan's house. "Except for a bed and a tiny kitchen table, his house contains no furniture. An assortment of 50-year-old free weights and a lifting bench preside in the nominal living and dining rooms. No pictures or mementos adorn the white walls. Scrapbooks in boxes and framed black-and-white photographs lean together in casual disarray on the floor." I could add a detail or two—the sun visors hanging from the weight rack, the milk cartons full of bodybuilding trophies—but everything seems to be as it was when Sampson visited. Minimalism is a Stranahan trademark. When he lived at Seagull Cottage, next to the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla., he installed a golf practice cage in the living room.)

Stranahan begins to read. Or at least he looks at the pages. His deep-set eyes have long had a haunted look, and it's hard to tell what he's thinking.

The first marked passage introduces him as Frankie, the headstrong 17-year-old son of Robert A. Stranahan, the Champion Spark Plug millionaire from Toledo. At Inverness Country Club in the early '40s, the reader learns, young Frankie took lessons from Masters and U.S. Open champion Byron Nelson. When not hitting balls compulsively on the practice range, Frankie bulked up his ballroom dancer's body with barbells. "And Frank was such a handsome devil," Sampson writes, "that young women pressed their phone numbers into his hand." This may be the passage Stranahan is reading when he snorts with amusement.

(Note to editor: Stranahan himself has never been an easy read. My sister met him by chance in the 1970s, when she sat next to him in the first-class section of a flight from New York City to West Palm Beach. Shortly after takeoff the intense-looking gentleman opened a leather case, revealing a long, sharp knife. Those were the days of frequent hijackings, so my sister was alarmed, as was the flight attendant who spotted the weapon from the galley. Hypnotized by the big blade, the two women watched as Stranahan lowered his tray table and spread out a sheet of plastic. It was only when he pared an apple and started chopping stalks of celery that they correctly pegged him as a health nut.)

Stranahan turns the pages. He's now up to the part in which he's a postwar sports celebrity...the best amateur golfer since Jones...the crowd-pleasing ladies' man who won the 1948 Fort Worth Invitational "against Hogan and Nelson, on the course they'd grown up on as caddies." There is, of course, the obligatory retelling of the classic Stranahan gag: how he used to ask bellboys to carry his bags up to his room, and how the bellboys would stagger and grunt over the barbell-filled suitcases.

(Note to editor: My father used to tell me golf stories at bedtime, and several were about Stranahan. Collectively, they constituted the Parable of the Spoiled Rich Kid and the Old Pros, in which a young man of privilege joins the Tour and is shunned by those who toil at golf for a living. Herbert Warren Wind, writing more than 40 years ago, concurred that "the boy flew off the handle on several occasions," such as the time, in a British Amateur match, when Stranahan accused his caddie of purposely giving him the wrong line to the hole. Or the time at Carnoustie when the Ohio strongman shocked his opponent, a Scotsman, by claiming victory on a hole he had actually halved with a conceded putt. But Wind concluded that "Frank was essentially a likable young man, warm in his affection for the people he liked, if a little too inexperienced in handling unusual situations properly." I recently asked Nelson about Stranahan, and the gracious Texan replied that his former pupil was well-liked by his peers. Nelson said, "The only comment I heard was, 'If I had his father's money, I'd play for fun, too.' " Another old Stranahan friend says the pros ribbed him good-naturedly about his barbells and birdseed diet, and they sometimes set off a smoke bomb in his Cadillac convertible, "which Frank didn't find so amusing.")

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