While he never managed to etch his name on the famous Claret Jug, Frank Stranahan certainly left his own indelible imprint on The Open during his illustrious playing career.
The American was considered the greatest amateur of his era and had two notable near-misses at The Open, finishing runner-up in 1947 at Royal Liverpool and 1953 at Carnoustie. But even more important than his second-place finishes was his support of The Open in the years following World War Two when few players from the States competed. Stranahan played in eight consecutive Opens from 1947 to 1954 and – along with Arnold Palmer – his presence was seen as a major factor in sustaining and enhancing the event. He also won the Silver Medal four times in its first five years, including taking the low amateur honour in 1951 at Royal Portrush – where The Open will return for a second time this year.
The Toledo Strongman
Stranahan was born into a wealthy industrialist family in Toledo, Ohio, in 1922 and utilised his privileged upbringing to concentrate on becoming the best golfer in the world. He grew up playing the Inverness Club in Toledo and received instruction as a junior in the early 1940s from none other than Byron Nelson, who was the club’s professional at the time. Stranahan subsequently embarked on an amateur career spanning from 1936 to 1954 that would see him win more than 50 amateur titles and finish the low-scoring amateur in 51 pro events. Such was his dominance, he was considered the greatest amateur golfer in the world – compiling a record comparable to only Bobby Jones before him and Tiger Woods after him. But it was not just on the course where Stranahan’s impact was felt, though, as his devotion to fitness also saw him become a pioneer for the importance of strength conditioning in golf. Nicknamed “The Toledo Strongman” or “muscles” – the latter by great friend and rival Palmer – Stranahan was as renowned for his physique as he was for his game. “He used to carry his weights in a suitcase,” Palmer said. “He'd get the bellman to carry the luggage to his room, but it was so heavy they couldn't lift it.”
Saving The Open
Many golfing historians have credited Stranahan and fellow American Palmer with helping to save The Open in the years following World War Two. Stranahan’s golf career was interrupted from the autumn of 1943 to the spring of 1945 while he served as an Army Air Corps pilot during the war. But on his return to the course, Stranahan competed for eight straight years at The Open at a time when American professionals and amateurs were not going across the pond. His popularity in the British Isles, along with Palmer’s victories in 1961 and 1962, revived interest in The Open and encouraged other top American players to compete once again. And, in fact, it was at Royal Liverpool in 1947 - the first of his eight consecutive Open appearances - where Stranahan narrowly missed out on lifting the Claret Jug for the first time. The amateur finished in a tie for second with Reg Horne as Fred Daly clinched the title to become the first Irish winner of the Open by just one shot in Hoylake.
Stranahan had gone into the final round at Royal St George’s one shot behind the four-way tie for the lead, with Daly joined by Henry Cotton, Arthur Lees and Norman von Nida. But he was the last man on the course who could deny Daly victory, reaching the 17th needing to play the final two holes in seven strokes to take him to a playoff. A three-put led to a five on the penultimate hole, though, and while he came within a whisker of getting an improbable two on the last it was not enough to take it to extra holes. Another near miss followed six years later when Stranahan took the lead after the opening round at Carnoustie, with his two-under 70 giving him an early advantage. His second round of 74 saw him drop out of the lead and into a tie for fourth, but as the only amateur left in the field he remained in contention with a third round of 73. He then saved his best until last as he produced a final round of 69 to finish in a group of four players on two under – but it was Ben Hogan who claimed victory by four shots in his only Open appearance.
“He told me that if he didn't win in Detroit, he was going to turn pro. As it turned out, I played him in the fifth round. I won 3&1 and sure enough, Stranny turned pro the next day.” Arnold Palmer
The one amateur title missing from Stranahan’s collection was the US Amateur, having suffered defeat in the final match against Sam Urzetta over three extra holes in 1950. And it was after Stranahan was denied his elusive title again in 1954 - when Palmer got the better of him in the fifth round in Detroit – that he finally decided to turn professional. “He told me that if he didn't win in Detroit, he was going to turn pro,” Palmer recalled. “As it turned out, I played him in the fifth round. I won 3 & 1 and sure enough, Stranny turned pro the next day.” Stranahan won six tournaments on the PGA Tour, finishing runner-up seven times and posting an impressive 67 top-10s in a combined amateur-pro career that lasted until 1964. The two-time British Amateur champion’s most notable triumph as a professional came at the Los Angeles Open in 1958, the same year he finished a career-best 15th on the tour money list. His competitive nature, and fitness obsession, remained after his retirement. He ran in more than 100 marathons and won trophies for body building and weightlifting into his 70s.