Her name sounds like a Disney character. Matilda Castren. Wasn’t that one of those kids who escaped to Witch Mountain? Or maybe she was the apprentice in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” Unfortunately, if the real Matilda Castren’s story was submitted to Disney, the script would be rejected with a note that reads: “No way. I know we’re in the fairytale business. But this is just too unbelievable.”
The truest stories often defy belief. Matilda’s is no exception.
For starters, she’s Finnish, not something you hear very often in our game. On the men’s side, Mikko Ilonen won the 2000 British Amateur and captured a few titles on the European Tour before retiring. And another Finn named Mikko Korhonen won the Shot Clock Masters in 2018 and the 2019 Volvo China Open. But you’d be pretty deep in the Trivial Pursuit game before you got to any others.
On the women’s side, Minea Blomqvist won twice on the Ladies European Tour before getting married and starting a family. But no Finn had won on the PGA Tour or LPGA Tour until 26-year-old Castren shot a final-round 65 at Lake Merced Golf Club in fog so thick you could barely see your shoes to win the LPGA Mediheal Classic by a couple of shots in June.
You’re not alone if you still haven’t heard of her, even though she shot 3-under 68 in the opening round of the Amundi Evian Championship yesterday and is only three shots off the lead. She had a top-10 last fall in the Drive On Championship at Reynolds Lake Oconee, the event where Ally Ewing broke through to win and where golf fans were introduced to Bianca Pagdanganan.
You almost feel embarrassed not to know that she is the winningest player in Florida State University history and holds the school record for lowest career stroke average. … Castren, who heads straight to Tokyo from Evian-les-Bains, France, is also Florida State’s first golf Olympian.
Before that Castren had a win on the Symetra Tour, the Mission Inn Resort and Club Championship in an out-of-the-way place called Howey-in-the-Hills, Florida. She’s part of that 2020 rookie class that got a do-over this year. And if it weren’t for Patty Tavatanakit winning the first major championship of the year, Castren would be a shoo-in for Rolex Rookie of the Year.
You almost feel embarrassed not to know that she is the winningest player in Florida State University history and holds the school record for lowest career stroke average. Karen Stupples went to FSU. She’s won a major. But Castren, who heads straight to Tokyo from Evian-les-Bains, France, is also Florida State’s first golf Olympian.
Three weeks after she won in Daly City, California, she came within a shot of perhaps beating world No. 2 Jin Young Ko in the Volunteers of America Classic. In that event, Castren misread a 2-footer that dove hard left late in the final round. Otherwise she might be a two-time winner with two majors left on the calendar.
“I had a really good amateur and college career and I had a lot of expectations for myself and so did other people,” Castren told me in pitch-perfect English that has you leaning in to detect a hint of an accent. “My first couple of years as a pro I was not playing that great and then everything kind of went downhill. For a while, I didn’t really know how to get out of it. Looking back at that, I’m definitely amazed at how I was able to win a few weeks ago or even get my card.
“When I got my card, I hadn’t been playing great, so I was like, ‘Well, I just played great at Q-School and now what’s going to happen?’ Last year was a really nice year to kind of practice out here and see what it’s like. I saw that my game is good enough to compete and to finish well here. So, everything has happened very quickly. I’ve had my dreams and goals and I knew one day that I could be lifting a trophy.
“It just came a little sooner than I thought.”
But as great as her LPGA play has been, the fairytale part of the story came last week in her homeland.
Because she earned her tour card and was basing herself in San Diego, Castren did not become a member of the Ladies European Tour. Normally, for a rookie, that wouldn’t be a concern. But then Castren’s play – one win, one runner-up, and a tie for eighth in the last nine months – got the attention of Solheim Cup watchers. Unfortunately, she wasn’t eligible for the team. Not even as a captain’s pick. LET membership is a requirement.
There was only one way for Castren to get on Catriona Matthew’s European squad. She had to win one of the four LET events she’d entered. Two of those were majors.
Now, this is where the story becomes too far-fetched not to be true. She did it in her first try, at home in Finland, capturing the LET Gant Ladies Open by three shots in front of a tearful and partisan crowd.
“Obviously, there was pressure,” she said. “But I tried to not let it bother me because I was talking to my coach and she was telling me, ‘Yeah, there’s pressure, but it’s really your decision if you’re going to let it get to you or let it affect you or if you’re just going to go out there and play your game and see what happens.’ I was like, yeah, that’s a good point. I can’t really blame anyone else for having pressure. It’s all if I’m going to take it or not.
“I knew the people in Finland really wanted a Finnish winner, and I’m just really happy and honored that I was able to give it to them. But yeah, I’m really relieved that I was able to win that one.”
Now, she’s on the first page of the leaderboard at a major championship. That might be too much to ask. But, when you’re living a fairytale, nothing seems out of reach.
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