Frank Richard Stranahan, 1922-2013

Golf champion was life-long fitness fanatic

6/25/2013
BY MARK REITER AND DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE STAFF WRITERS
Frank Stranahan at Heather Downs Country Club at age 19 in 1942.
Frank Stranahan at Heather Downs Country Club at age 19 in 1942.

Frank Richard Stranahan, who was born into a Toledo industrialist family and went on to combine privilege with talent and hard work to become the greatest amateur golfer in the world of his era, died Sunday in Hospice of Palm Beach County, Florida. He was 90.

Mr. Stranahan, who was the oldest and only surviving member of his generation of one of Toledo’s most prominent families, later in life became a noted weight lifter, bodybuilder, and health and nutrition fanatic.

He had been a patient in the hospice facility for about a week, said his son, Lance.

“He had been slowing down over the last few weeks,” he said.

PHOTO GALLERY: Frank Stranahan

Mr. Stranahan said his father had kept a regular workout routine until he became ill. He said he went with him to a gym near their home in West Palm Beach several times a week.

“He was mostly doing the punching bag. He would lift some weights and do exercise machines and weight machines. He did a little bit of light jogging,” his son said.

Mr. Stranahan said his father also accompanied him to the golf course, where he would hit balls on the driving range.

Mr. Stranahan embarked on a career that would see him win 51 amateur titles and six PGA Tour events after learning the game on the fairways and greens of Inverness Club, where his family was among the most prominent of members.

Mr. Stranahan ran in 102 marathons and was winning body-building and weight-lifting championships well into his 70s.

Mr. Stranahan was described as living a Spartan existence in his later years as he followed a strict vegetarian diet, often fasting for long periods, and chased longevity with a stated desire to live to the age of 120.

VIDEO: Palm Beach Health Studio: Frank Stranahan deadlifts 265 lbs on his 78th birthday,  Aug. 5, 2000, with his son Lance.

Dick Torio, who for more than 50 years owned a West Toledo gymnasium on Berwick Avenue called Torio’s Health Club, said a lot of people might be surprised to learn how down to earth Mr. Stranahan was.

“He was friendly and kind. He was a kind man. He appreciated any athlete who accomplished anything,” Mr. Torio said.

Mr. Stranahan was the son of Robert A. Stranahan and the nephew of Frank D. Stranahan, who together moved a struggling auto-parts manufacturing company from Boston to Toledo in 1910 to supply spark plugs to the Willys-Overland Car Company.

Robert Stranahan, also known as R.A., invented a copper-asbestos washer that revolutionized both spark plug design and automobile efficiency. By 1914, Champion Spark Plug had become the largest company of its kind in the world.

Young Frank Stranahan, who was named after his uncle, was born to R.A. and Page Ellyson Stranahan on Aug. 5, 1922. He was raised on the family estate off Central Avenue that is now Wildwood Preserve Metropark and at the Stranahans’ summer home in Saugatuck, Conn.

Stranahan
Stranahan

He was raised as a sportsman at Inverness, where he learned the game of golf from his father, an accomplished player in his own right, and from top club professionals, including Tom Currie, Alfred Sargent, and the legendary Byron Nelson. Mr. Nelson, who was the golf professional at Inverness from 1940-44, was Mr. Stranahan’s tutor.

Lord Byron, as he was nicknamed, signed his first contract to work with the Inverness Club in June of 1939 and won the U.S. Open two weeks later.

“It really did help me,” Mr. Stranahan said of his time at Inverness during a 2001 interview with Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg, who was doing research for an Inverness Club history book published in 2003.

“There were very small greens and with the balls and clubs we played in those days, Inverness was a great test of golf. It rounded your game so that you could do almost anything. It was the start for me and I hardly lost anything in those days.”

In 1941, he won the first of two straight Ohio Amateur championships at Inverness and, in 1945, he captured the PGA Tour’s Durham Open to begin a 10-year stretch during which he won the national amateur championships of three countries, including the British Amateur, which was considered one of golf’s major championship at the time, and finished as runner-up in both the Masters and British Open.

Many golf historians consider Mr. Stranahan’s record, or at least his decade of dominance, as the greatest amateur career between those of the legendary Bob Jones and a young Tiger Woods.

From 1945-54, when he declared himself to be a professional and began accepting prize money, Mr. Stranahan not only captured 51 amateur titles but finished as the low-scoring amateur in 51 pro tournaments.

“I would say my greatest accomplishment as an amateur was having the opportunity to play in so many of those wonderful [pro] golf tournaments,” he said in 2001. “At every tournament, [PGA officials would] put me with the winner from the week before. So I was always playing with Demaret, Snead, Locke, Hogan, and other tremendous champions. I was playing the best courses with the best players and it was very satisfying to do well in those situations.”

VIDEO: Golf Web site Secretinthedirt.com's Jackie Burke talks with PGA Tour Legend Steve Elkington about Frank Stranahan and how weightlifting helped his golf game.

A six-time winner of the World Amateur and the All-American Amateur, Mr. Stranahan also won the prestigious North & South and the Western amateur championships on multiple occasions.

He was a member of three victorious U.S. Walker Cup teams, posting at least one individual match victory during each appearance.

In 1946, Mr. Stranahan won two PGA Tour events, in Kansas City and Fort Worth, as an amateur. In 1947, he finished second at both the Masters, where he was tied with Mr. Nelson behind champion Jimmy Demaret, and the British Open, where he finished a single stroke behind winner Fred Daly. A year later, he won the amateur championships of Great Britain, Canada, and Mexico.

The British Amateur, played at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in 1948, was the biggest of those, coming during an era when the Open and Amateur championships of both the United States and Great Britain were considered the sport’s four major championships. The two amateur events were later replaced on the “major” rotation by the Masters and PGA Championship.

Mr. Stranahan captured the British Amateur title again in 1950 at the Old Course in St. Andrews, where he accepted the trophy from England’s King George VI. He had great success playing in the British Isles and would later finish second in the 1952 British Amateur and as runner-up, part of a four-way tie behind champion Ben Hogan, in the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie.

Frank Stranahan chats with his father, R.A. Stranahan, in 1955. R.A. founded Champion Spark Plug with his brother, Frank D. Stranahan.
Frank Stranahan chats with his father, R.A. Stranahan, in 1955. R.A. founded Champion Spark Plug with his brother, Frank D. Stranahan.

Mr. Stranahan and his friend and fellow American Arnold Palmer were credited by many British golf historians as helping save the Open, a once-prestigious event that fell on hard times when most American professionals and amateurs declined to go to the expense of traveling “over the pond” in the years following World War II.

His golf career was interrupted from the autumn of 1943 to the spring of 1945 while he served as an Army Air Corps pilot during World War II, but he supported the British Open by competing for eight straight years (1947-54) after the war. His popularity in the British Isles helped revive interest in the tournament while Mr. Palmer’s wins there in 1961-62 brought it all the way back to the world stage.

“Frank and I have been pretty good friends through the years,” Mr. Palmer said in a 2003 interview with The Blade.

“We go back a long way. I remember a lot of the matches we had. Frank was a great, great player.”

Mr. Palmer also was at the center of Mr. Stranahan’s last hurrah as an amateur. Despite the incredible success of his career, he never won the U.S. Amateur, perhaps the one title that would have meant the most to him.

He suffered a heart-breaking defeat in the final match in 1950, losing in three extra holes to Sam Urzetta in Minneapolis. Four years later, in his 11th U.S. Amateur bid, he would advance to the fifth round before losing to Mr. Palmer at the Country Club of Detroit.

Although Frank Stranahan claimed his father had long discouraged a professional career, perhaps enjoying the attention and publicity his son’s career brought to Champion, Mr. Stranahan turned pro almost immediately after the loss to Mr. Palmer.

“He told me [a week earlier] that if he didn’t win in Detroit, he was going to turn pro,” Mr. 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.”

According to PGA Tour records, Mr. Stranahan won six tournaments, was runner-up seven times, and posted 67 top-10s in a combined amateur-pro career that lasted through the 1964 season, when he retired from competition. His most prestigious win as a pro was the Los Angeles Open in 1958, when he finished a career-best 15th on the tour money list with $16,642.

“Today, if a player turned pro with the credentials and accomplishments I had, it would [mean] millions and millions of dollars,” Mr. Stranahan said in 2001. “It was nothing like that for me.”

His critics, and there were some sprinkled through the amateur and pro ranks, would suggest he already had plenty. Mr. Stranahan dealt with considerable jealousy, not only because of his wealth but also his Hollywood good looks and a physique he worked hard to achieve and enjoyed showing off by wearing tight polo shirts on the course.

He would travel with barbells, weights, and squat racks and was among the first to add a serious fitness regimen to golf. Although the media often found it a curiosity — Mr. Stranahan was tagged “The Toledo Strongman,” “Muscles,” and “The Blond Adonis” — Gary Player, the globetrotting South African golfer who followed in those fitness footsteps and became a close friend, once said, “Nobody worked harder than Frank.”

Mr. Stranahan retired from competitive golf after the 1964 PGA season, returned to college, and earned a master’s degree in business from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Finance. He briefly worked for Champion before opening Stranahan Investments with offices in New York City and Palm Beach, Fla., where he took up residence.

He married the former Ann Williams in Chicago on July 17, 1953. She took up golf after her marriage to Mr. Stranahan. Within five years, she reached the finals of the Toledo Women’s District Golf Association tournament. She went on to win 25 tournament titles and competed in several national and international tournaments. She died on April 8, 1975.

Frank Stranahan won numerous bodybuilding and weightlifting competitions and was known to carry barbells with him early in his amateur golfing career.
Frank Stranahan won numerous bodybuilding and weightlifting competitions and was known to carry barbells with him early in his amateur golfing career.

Frank and Ann Stranahan lived in the West Central Avenue estate that was owned by his parents before they moved to Palm Beach in 1968.

In addition to Lance, the couple had two older sons: Frank Stranahan, Jr., who died on Aug. 23, 1966, at age 11 from bone cancer, and James, who died in 1977.

Mr. Torio said he and Mr. Stranahan met in the early 1950s at the Central YMCA in downtown Toledo.

Mr. Stranahan was one of the pioneers who showed that weight lifting could be beneficial to golfers, Mr. Torio said.

He said Mr. Stranahan was known to carry Olympic barbells in his car trunk.

“He had friends all over the country who were bodybuilders and weightlifters,” Mr. Torio said.

Mr. Stranahan “appreciated anyone who helped him, who spotted him [watched and guarded the weight lifting] at the gym, or helped him in any way,” Mr. Torio said.

He said he was impressed to have received a call from Mr. Stranahan one time, thanking him for showing a lifting technique that helped keep his back muscles from being overexerted.

Mr. Torio said, “He was a quiet man. He was reserved, but quiet. He was just interested in anybody who would work hard and achieve anything.”

The younger Mr. Stranahan said his father began running in his late 40s, eventually competing in major marathons, including Boston, New York, and Chicago. He said his regular routine was to get up before 3 a.m. for runs of 15 to 20 miles and then work out of his office in his home, where he had a home gym and weight-lifting equipment.

He said his father also completed in ultramarathons of 50 miles in England. “He kept running pretty much up until a few years back,” he said.

Surviving is his son, Lance.

A memorial service is planned for July 2 in the Quattlebaum Funeral Home in West Palm Beach. Tributes are suggested to Hospice of Palm Beach.

Staff writer Tom Henry contributed to this report.

Contact Mark Reiter: at markreiter@theblade.com or 419-724-6199.