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Muscled Out Of The Masters Half a century after getting run out of the tournament, Frank Stranahan is still going strong

April 06, 1998
April 06, 1998

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April 6, 1998

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Muscled Out Of The Masters Half a century after getting run out of the tournament, Frank Stranahan is still going strong

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.

This is an article from the April 6, 1998 issue Original Layout

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 the 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.")

Stranahan's eyes stop for a moment. He's reached that 1947
passage from Collier's, the one describing him as "Golf's Bad
Boy...the most egocentric, monomaniacal character who ever swung
a niblick."

He stares at the passage. "The writer came to our house once and
asked me and Dad a lot of questions. He promised to let us see
the article, but that was a lie." He smiles. "Dad canceled
$300,000 worth of advertising in the magazine."

(Note to editor: At this point Stranahan said some negative
things about journalists. He fixed me with a stare and said,
"Writers act like they care. Like you. You're pretending to be
interested, but you just want me to say something I'm not about
to say." When I lied that that was certainly not my intention,
he smiled placidly and resumed reading.)

Now he's at the pertinent section, the pages covering the 1947
and '48 Masters. This is where the book relates how Stranahan,
an amateur playing in his second Masters, shocked the sports
world by finishing second in '47, tied with Nelson, two shots
behind the colorful Jimmy Demaret. "I never really had a chance
to win," Stranahan says. "I shot 68 or something in the final
round. Made it look close."

(Note to editor: My brother, a onetime touring pro, has a vivid
memory of Stranahan's golf swing. "It was not graceful or
natural," he says, "but more like someone following a checklist
of muscle movements. He took the club outside until his hands
were eight or 10 inches in front of his right shoulder. Then he
brought his hands back level with the ground until they were
behind his shoulder. Then he came down to the ball. He hit it
very well, but he was truly a mechanical man.")

I straighten a bit in my chair because now Stranahan has reached
the shocking events of 1948, which saw him pulled off Augusta
National during a practice round and kicked out of the Masters.
To my amazement Stranahan gives this material the briefest
glance, riffles the remaining pages, and puts the book down.

Well? What does he think? He shrugs. "I didn't read it very
closely," he says, "but it looks like he got every word I said."

(Note to editor: Stranahan seemed uninterested. He left the
kitchen and came back with a couple of recent magazine articles
that mention him in connection with Tiger Woods. Both pieces
were about weightlifting--Tiger lifts, too--and one pictured
Frank as winner of the over-70 division at the 1997 National
Physique Committee Gold Cup Classic bodybuilding competition.
Flexing in a photo, his body covered with oil and gleaming under
stage lights, he looked bigger than he does in person. That may
be due to his paleness. He leads a vampirelike existence,
getting up at 3 a.m. to lift, often running five or six miles
before daybreak (he's a former marathoner) and working out under
artificial light at a commercial gym. One old friend claims that
Stranahan's vegetarianism is not absolute. "I've seen him eat
half a beef roast," she says, but allows that Stranahan's binges
are offset by his 10-day fasts, which leave him weak and
emaciated. "It would scare you to death," she says, "if you ever
caught him on the ninth day.")

I ask to hear the story of the expulsion in his own words, and
Stranahan obliges. It was April 1948, he begins. Masters week.
He arrived at Augusta National for a practice round and found a
rumor nursery instead. "They told me in the golf shop that they
were out to get me," Stranahan says. "The pro told me they would
do anything to get me out of the tournament."

The pro, Ed Dudley, was also the president of the PGA, and he
warned Stranahan not to hit a second ball to any of the greens
during practice rounds, which the amateur had done in '47,
breaking a tournament rule. Stranahan took in the warnings and
then went out by himself with a caddie--playing, he insists,
just the one ball. He dropped additional balls on the greens and
putted to spots, a practice permitted then as now.

Suddenly the course superintendent, Marion Luke, was in his
face. "He said, 'You can't do that!'" Stranahan says, mimicking
Luke's angry face. "'You're hitting a bunch of balls to the
green!' I told him I wasn't, but he gave me a hard time."

Luke left, but two holes later he was back. This time tempers
flared. The two men swore at each other, and Luke said, "I'm
going in to report you." Stranahan sighs. "I said, 'You're
ridiculous.'"

Ridiculous or not, a delegation of club members met the Ohio
amateur at the 8th green. They told him that his invitation had
been revoked and he had to leave the grounds immediately.

(Note to editor: That last bit is from Sampson's book. Stranahan
told me he was bounced by the tournament chairman himself, the
overbearing Roberts.)

"So I bought a ticket [to the tournament]," Stranahan continues,
"and I stayed there."

Not sure how to proceed, Stranahan called his father and then
phoned the Silver Scot, former British and U.S. Open champion
Tommy Armour. Both men counseled him to appeal his case to the
club's president, Jones. "They said Jones was one of the premier
sportsmen in the country," Stranahan says. "He would certainly
listen to me and give me a fair trial." But Jones dodged
Stranahan for two days, and when they finally met, on Wednesday,
the great man threw up his hands. Sorry, Frank. Cliff runs the
tournament. "I never had a chance to give my side of the story,"
Stranahan says. "I never had much respect for Bobby Jones after
that."

Or for Roberts. Stranahan admits he shed no tears, 29 years
later, when the tournament chairman went out one night on the
par-3 course and fatally shot himself by Ike's Pond.

(Note to editor: Stranahan's actual words were, "I wish I'd been
there when he committed suicide. I would have rolled the son of
a bitch into the water.")

Of course, the question we want answered, the question that has
never been answered satisfactorily, is why? Why was the club
"out to get" Stranahan?

Curt Sampson quotes a 1948 magazine article to the effect that
Stranahan had dated a blonde "who was palsy with a club member,"
and that the club member had retaliated by getting Stranahan in
trouble at Augusta National. "The rumor within the rumor,"
Sampson writes, "was that the affronted member was Himself,
Clifford Roberts, and that the blonde was his secretary."

In the book Stranahan says, "I don't want to go into that." To
me he says, "I've heard a lot of stories, but I'm not going to
tell you those."

(Note to editor: I didn't push for an answer, but a former
female acquaintance of Stranahan's told me that she found the
story of the blonde plausible. "In those days," she said with a
laugh, "Frank would grab everything but the third rail." Neither
did I challenge Stranahan when he voiced no resentment toward
the Tour players who would not stand up for him in 1948, or the
golf writers who were afraid to cross Roberts and Jones, or the
officials of the PGA and USGA, who studied their own
fingernails. "I'm sure the players were jealous," Stranahan told
me. "They had every right to be. My dad was bankrolling me, and
I could play every week without worrying." Nelson has always
assumed that Stranahan did hit extra balls onto the greens.
"Frankie's probably forgotten," Nelson told me. But he added
that Stranahan impressed everyone by staying the week and acting
like a gentleman. "Most of these kids today would say, 'Cram
it,' and leave town.")

Stranahan does have one curious bit to add to Sampson's account.
The year after his banishment, he says, he returned to the
Masters and drew a large bid in the club's Calcutta auction. His
buyer? None other than Cliff Roberts. "But I didn't finish very
well," Stranahan says.

(Note to editor: I don't want to leave the impression that
Stranahan was a one-tournament wonder. He won two British
Amateurs, finished second to Ben Hogan in the 1953 British Open
and finally turned pro in '54, winning two Tour events before
retiring around 1960. I worry, too, about not having the space
to get into his personal history. Cancer took his wife, Ann,
when she was 45, and killed his son Frank Jr. at age 11. Another
son, Jimmy, quarreled with his father and painted his bedroom
black before dying of a drug overdose at 19. Then Stranahan, a
full-time stock trader after studying at the Wharton School of
Economics, lost much of his inherited fortune in the Wall Street
crash of October 1987. Understandably, he tries to control his
fate and that of his loved ones. He started his youngest son on
barbells when he was five, and Lance grew up to be a good junior
golfer, a karate black belt and a Teenage Mr. West Palm Beach
bodybuilder. In 1993, when a promoter asked father and son to
"guest pose" at a competition, Lance choreographed a routine
straight out of vaudeville. His father, playing a decrepit
codger, limped on stage with a cane. Enter the sexy nurse, who
"injected" the old man with an oversized hypodermic needle.
Voila--the suddenly virile Stranahan stripped off his shawls and
flexed, revealing a sleek, delineated torso. "Anytime my father
goes into something, it's with total dedication," says Lance,
who is 35, engaged to be married, and selling real estate in
South Florida.)

Stranahan pushes the book away. He would rather talk about the
swell party that he attended the other night, the one at Ballen
Isles Country Club. Sam Snead was there. Gene Sarazen. Perry
Como couldn't make it, but the old comic from Fort Lauderdale,
Woody Woodbury, had 'em in stitches. An old guy sang. Stranahan
frowns. "Who was the old guy who sang?" he asks.

Vic Damone? (It was in the paper.) "Not Vic. He's a young guy."
He catches himself. "Well, yeah, he's old too. No, the old guy,
sings real loud. Those great old songs." Stranahan gives up.
"I'll think of it before your car is out of the driveway."

(Note to editor: Stranahan is not always so comfortable at
social events. "I'll go to a party," he told me, "and someone
says, 'I hear you're a golfer.' I say, 'Well, I was the best
amateur in the world.' And they say, 'Did you ever meet anybody
famous?'" He snorted. "They don't know what the hell's
happening. They don't even read the newspaper." On the other
hand, he still enjoys a spin around the dance floor. Stranahan
recently went out dancing with a widow of long acquaintance and
came back raving about how good she looked. He said, "I told her
one of my interests is longevity, and she seems to have found
the secret!")

He seems distracted now. Apparently, 50-year-old memories of
green grass and sunshine are no longer compelling. He has
survived Jones. He has survived Roberts. Through exercise and
the use of the powders and pills that fill his refrigerator, he
hopes to reset his cellular clocks to a life span of 100 or 120
or even 150 years--surviving us all. He has changed games.

(Note to editor: A friend gave me this Stranahan quote from the
'70s: "Golf is a waste of time.")

I've overstayed my welcome, and if there's a scandal here, it
has cooled considerably over half a century. I pick up the book,
thank Stranahan for his time and move toward the door. "I'll
remember that name," he says. Then I'm outside, blinking in the
blinding sun.

An hour later I call my answering machine. "It's Frank," says a
now familiar voice. "The old guy who sang was Don Cornell."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEN VAN HOOK [Frank Stranahan]B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN HUNKY-DORY Most women, including Babe Zaharias (far right, with Dot Kielty in '50), found the strapping Stranahan irresistible. [Dot Kielty, Frank Stranahan, and Babe Zaharias]B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN [See caption above--Frank Stranahan]B/W PHOTO: UPI/CORBIS-BETTMANN WHIZ KID The top amateur of his era, Stranahan almost beat the pros in the '47 Masters and the '47 and '53 British Opens. [Frank Stranahan playing golf]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BEN VAN HOOK STILL SWINGING The 75-year-old Stranahan says his goal is to live to be 120. [Frank Stranahan swinging golf club]
"Frank was a likable young man," Wind said, "warm in his
affection for the people he liked."
In '48, says Stranahan, "they told me in the golf shop that they
were out to get me."