By Bernie McGuire in Abu Dhabi.
Sepp Straka will tee-up in this week’s Hero Cup keeping it all in the family with his twin brother Sam to caddy for the champion Austrian golfer.
It will not be the first occasion Straka had his twin on the bag as the Strakas worked together at last year’s 150th Open Championship.
This week marks a Middle East first for Straka whose real name is Josef, with ‘Sepp’ being an affectionate nickname for Josef.
The story of how both brothers became good golfers before moving to the States is a wonderful tale of initially ‘what if’.
Their mother Mary Straka was already an avid golf fan when she moved from Valdosta, Georgia, and close to the Florida border, to travel to the other side of the globe to be with her then Austrian-born boyfriend in Vienna.
However, when the relationship broke-up she thought to herself that she liked the European country so much, she stayed on and that’s how she met Peter Straka, casually strolling one day into the Austrian pro shop to buy a new glove.
This new relationship blossomed and Mary went to work with Peter. The pair got married and on 1st May, 1993 she gave birth to twin boys – Josef (Sepp) and Sam.
However, it was football that first won the boys’ attention but with the encouragement of their parents, the boys enrolled in a summer golf camp at the famed Fontana Golf Club at Oberwaltersdorf to the south of Vienna. Fontana played host to the Austrian Open in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and lost out to Italy to host this year’s Ryder Cup.
“My brother and I kind of made that move together by attending that summer camp, and it was he who really decided that we were going to start playing a little more golf,” said Straka. “That’s kind of how we got into golf.”
Then in 2007, and with the boys aged 14, the family moved to Valdosta, located also just over a four-hour drive south of Augusta, Georgia, and some four years later the pair enrolled in the famed University of Georgia.
Despite an initial attraction to football, golf was strong in the family genes as it wasn’t long, when in 2011 both boys made their way onto the famed ‘Bulldogs’ golf team where Sepp very much impressed, so much so after completing college, he turned professional playing a number of tournaments on the 2016 PGA Tour Canada. He qualified for the 2017 Web.com Tour season with a best finish in 25 events being 7th in the El Bosque Mexico Championship.
Straka created golfing history at the end of 2018 in becoming the first Austrian golfer to earn a PGA Tour card by finishing tied for 20th on the 2018 Web.com Tour Finals money list. He capped that 2018 season securing his first pro victory by capturing the Web.com Tour’s KC Golf Classic by one stroke.
The now Athens, GA based Straka represented Austria at the 2021 Summer Olympics with an individual effort of tied 10th in Japan while on the last Sunday in February last year, Straka became the first Austrian-born player to win on the PGA Tour, denying Ireland’s Shane Lowry to capture the 2022 Honda Classic.
Later last year he went close to further PGA Tour success losing out play-offs for the WGC – FedEx St. Jude Championship and the Sanderson Farms Championship.
Straka’s played the four majors, including a T30th result at last year’s Masters and the family high of having his twin brother caddy for him at the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews.
“Looking back on last year it was kind of a dream come true,” said Straka.
“Playing the 150th Open at St. Andrews was amazing, with my brother on the bag there. There was just so many tournaments that I always dreamed of playing and was able to tee-up in them last year.”
Now heading into 2023 he’s not only making his European pro team debut later this week in the UAE capital but looking also to become the second Austrian-born after Bernd Wiesberger in 2021 to represent Europe later this year at the Ryder Cup in Rome.
“I’m really excited to be going to Abu Dhabi as it’s going to be a fun event”, said Straka. “I’ve never been to that part of the world, so that’s adding to my excitement.
“Luke (Donald) first approached me late last year about the format and I got a call from Francesco (Molinari) asking if I’d like to be on his team.
“So, while looking forward to being on the European team, I’m hoping also it can lead to being on another European team later in the year in Rome.”
This week’s inaugural Hero Cup will be a first team event for Straka since he and his brother, and then aged 18, represented Austria in finishing runner-up to Spain in the 2011 European Boys Team Championship in Prague. A member of the victorious Spanish side that year was a then 17-year-old Jon Rahm.
“Aside from the annual Zurich Classic on the PGA Tour, it’s been a long time since I played team competition,” Straka said.
So, what if Straka is successful in making it onto the European Ryder Cup team and though being born in Austria, he’s very much American sounding, so how will he be accepted in the Italian capital?
“I have a good friend in Austria, Clemens,” said Straka. “I used to always say that I was 50/50, 50 percent Austrian, 50 percent American. He was like, no, you’re 100 percent Austrian and 100 percent American, which is very accurate.
“So, I feel a strong connection to both countries.”
If Straka does make it to Rome, he will follow in Bernd Wiesberger’s steps after the now LIV golfer made his Ryder Cup debut at Whistling Straits in 2021.
As well, it’s the now 37-year-old Wiesberger, as a winner of eight DP World Tour titles including his ‘home’ Lyoness Open in 2012, who has been an inspiration to Straka.
“I grew-up being inspired by what Bernd was achieving competing on the European Tour,” said Straka.
“Of course, he’s a little older than me but he has long been the best player in Austria, playing all over the world and qualifying for the majors. I then got to know him well as we had the same coach.”
And while Straka maybe both 100% Austrian and 100% American, he has a distinct American accent, and naturally also loves American sport, including not only being a diehard Georgia Bulldogs fan but he’s a big Atlanta Falcons supporter and rarely misses an Atlanta NBA Hawks match.
However, he’s also watched enough European golf via the Golf Channel to know all about the Seve Trophy that the Hero Cup is replacing.
“Growing-up I can recall watching TV coverage of the Seve Trophy though not remembering who played or anything like,” he said.
“Though I do know it provided European players with that team format experience for those who really had not that experience since turning pro.
“That’s a big reason why I’m looking to this week to the Hero Cup, gaining team experience as well as getting to know better the guys on both teams.”
Straka has certainly come a long way in professional golf and also since around his 20th birthday when Austrian tournament organisers afforded him an invitation to make his DP World Tour debut on home soil in the 2013 Lyoness Open.
A strong showing this week in Abu Dhabi will clearly put Straka in good stead heading into season 2023 proper, and the possibility of a visit to Rome later this year.