PINEHURST, N.C. | On the first fairway of Pinehurst No. 2, the sun glares into the sandy surrounds while the flagstick plays dead from heat exhaustion. The only sound among the two players, their caddies and a few dozen spectators comes from the constant muttering of the pines that collect voices from those who three-putt below. Donald Ross promised his first hole to be a firm handshake, but what would he say to all of the sweating palms unable to grip the innocuous-turned-nefarious opener?
In this U.S. Amateur cauldron of heat, pressure, 36-hole days and unrelenting turtleback greens, Ricky Castillo opted to wear dark gray pants like a professional would. He didn’t have to, and nobody else did, but it’s symbolic of how he hopes the decision will be mandatory in the coming years.
Just how polished, you may be wondering, is this 18-year-old from Southern California? Perhaps we should start with how, as a young boy, Castillo learned that playing golf with his brother Derek would get the two of them excused from chores. Taking a divot is far better than pulling weeds, so they went out to the course every opportunity they could. Derek, three years older, developed into a good enough player to be recruited by UNLV. The school’s assistant coach at the time was J.C. Deacon, and when an 11-year-old Ricky came into the office with his brother, Deacon said he bet that one day Ricky would be playing for him. A few years later, Ricky had committed to the passionate coach who believed in him early on, following Deacon to the University of Florida.
“I’ve been trying to tell people for a long time that he’s one of the most mentally tough 18-year-olds I’ve ever seen,” Deacon said. “His belief in himself is second to none. He’s not cocky at all, but he just knows that he is going to make good decisions.”
When you ask Castillo about his college choice being more than 2,000 miles away from home, he also cites grass as a consideration. He admits he hasn’t properly learned to play on Bermuda, and that’s the surface most of the PGA Tour plays on when you add together events in Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee and Texas. So why not start in college? After a long wait, he begins in Gainesville this fall.
“It’s crazy to think that I committed as a freshman (in high school),” Castillo said. “And to finally get a chance to be there, it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
His sunglasses are flipped on the back of his hat like former Gator great Chris DiMarco used to do it. Although he’s slender, Castillo looks like a pro, the requisite physical tools combining with a remarkably short and decisive pre-shot routine that feels free. He oozes belief before he even addresses the ball, rehearsing one slow-motion swing and then channeling Brooks Koepka. If there is internal turmoil, the gallery couldn’t know. Instead, during Castillo’s round-of-16 match Thursday with Vanderbilt rising senior John Augenstein, they offered versions of the ultimate compliment: “This kid is just a fierce competitor,” one person said after Castillo had stuck his approach close at the par-4 11th to set up a birdie that drew him back to 2 down. “He’s too good to go away quietly.”
In a losing effort, Castillo proved why he owns such a magnetism before even stepping foot onto campus. Augenstein, a match-play wizard who has gone 15-3-1 in singles over the past two years, bludgeoned Castillo over the front nine to take a 4-up lead. That’s when Castillo went eagle-birdie-birdie, suddenly cutting the once-insurmountable advantage to 1 down. It stayed at that margin for the last six holes and Augenstein moved on to the quarterfinal, but Castillo still strengthened his experience – and his hopes of making the U.S. Walker Cup team – by showing grit. He shot 2-under par with normal match-play concessions, a performance that likely could have beat most of the other 15 players on the course.
“The first match, I shot even par and won, 5 and 3,” Castillo said. “It happens. Sometimes you run into a guy like him and he’s a really good player. I’m still really pleased by the way I played.”
As the USGA’s International Team Selection Committee mulls over the next couple of days whether to include Castillo on the American Walker Cup team that will face Great Britain and Ireland at Royal Liverpool in England next month, there are several burning questions for its members to consider. For starters, would it be in the best interest of the team to have two juniors on the team? Each of the past three Walker Cup teams haven’t included a junior player. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Rodgers were the last juniors to play in one in 2011.
One telling moment in the tournament came when Cooper Dossey, the North & South Amateur winner who reached the round of 32 this week, referenced a victory over Castillo in June as a turning point for him.
This year, there is already one junior guaranteed to play – 17-year-old Akshay Bhatia, who plans to turn pro after the Walker Cup, has been selected by virtue of his standing as one of the top three Americans in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. With recent college standouts Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff, Justin Suh and Will Gordon having bypassed Walker Cup consideration to turn pro, experience could be a critical factor.
These matters are rarely so simple, however, and it appears Castillo has done more than enough to be included. He is the No. 4 American in the ranking, having reached the semifinals of the Western Amateur and finished in the top three in the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley.
At the U.S. Amateur, Castillo shot 2-under 138 in stroke play, finishing one stroke behind medalist Brandon Wu, and won two matches before running into Augenstein. One telling moment in the tournament came when Cooper Dossey, the North & South Amateur winner who reached the round of 32 this week, referenced a victory over Castillo in June as a turning point for him.
“I struggle with confidence a lot, and I think when I beat him, he’s a great player and I kind of realized that was a big moment for me,” Dossey said. “It’s going to be a big one moving forward in my career.”
No matter how much respect other amateurs have for Castillo, one of the main arguments against his Walker Cup candidacy is the perception that the amount of world ranking points top junior tournaments offer is disproportionate to the amount leading amateur tournaments offer, giving them an inflated value. Then again, three juniors reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur, another sign of how the gap between juniors and college players is often smaller than we realize.
“I don’t know how you can look at his summer and not have him right in the thick of the team you are trying to pick,” Deacon said. “Every time he has put a tee in the ground, he hasn’t had a poor performance.”
How the USGA handles Castillo will almost certainly be influenced by what transpires over the weekend in Pinehurst. An American winner would earn an automatic spot on the team, and seven of the final eight players are American with only two of them – Augenstein and Spencer Ralston – in the running to be Walker Cup picks if they don’t win. If Cohen Trolio or Palmer Jackson, both juniors, were to win, that would automatically add a second junior to the team and could make a Castillo pick more difficult. Neither of those two players is ranked in the top 500 of the WAGR.
Augenstein’s impressive match-play record includes defeating Bhatia in this year’s U.S. Amateur and taking down Morikawa in last year’s U.S. Amateur. Will his accomplishments in the format compensate for his No. 38 ranking in the WAGR? A victory would take all of those questions away.
A lot of questions remain between now and Sunday evening when the team is expected to be announced, but Castillo shouldn’t be surprised if his name is called.
Ricky Castillo hits a shot on the 10th hole during the round of 64 at the U.S. Amateur. Photo: Michael Reaves, Copyright USGA
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