Roberto Castro put an appropriate finish to an outstanding sophomore season on the PGA Tour, tying for ninth in the Tour Championship before family and friends who came out to watch him at East Lake.
Castro, who grew up in Alpharetta, starred on the golf teams at Milton High School and Georgia Tech and has settled in Atlanta, was playing in his home town for the first time as a PGA Tour member.
He qualified for the Tour Championship by playing consistently excellent golf the entire second half of the season, beginning with the Players Championship, where he matched the course record at TPC Sawgrass with an opening round 63.
Playing under the spotlight for the first time in his brief PGA Tour career, Castro struggled for most of the second round in the Players. He was 6-over on the day after 12 holes, but managed to hold things together from that point, closing out his round with six straight pars.
Castro recovered from his potentially disastrous Friday showing, shooting 1-under 71 each of the last two rounds to finish inside the top 20 in the tournament and collect a check for over $100,000 for the week, his largest in 2013 to that point.
“The last six holes Friday was the best six holes I played all year to shoot 78,” Castro recalled after finishing up his final round in the Tour Championship. “I gutted it out.”
Castro’s play to hold that round together, and his solid effort over the weekend, displayed his resilience. He proved he could hang in under the pressure of contending for a victory in the final round the following month.
In the AT&T National at Congressional, Castro battled 2011 Tour Championship winner and FedExCup champion Bill Haas shot for shot, ending the week in second place after shooting 69 in the final round on one of the most storied and demanding courses in the country.
“I played very nicely that day,” Castro said of the final round at Congressional. “Bill played a little better. A plus from that was that I was front and center to see how you win a tournament. I saw that it’s not done with magic tricks.”
Castro closed out his 2013 season with a strong performance in his only major championship of the year (T12 at the PGA) and a splendid run through the Playoffs that included finishes of 9th, 15th and 9th in the last three events.
After he concluded play at East Lake, Castro was asked to grade his year. The former academic All-American at Georgia Tech thought for a second before offering up an answer.
He awarded himself an “A,” even though he admitted, “I struggled the first half. But I continued to gut it out and got it going the second half. It goes to show that it’s a long season and you just keep going.”
Castro finished the regular season 41st on the FedExCup points list, and needed to move into the top 30 to make it to East Lake. After a respectable tie for 25th in the first Playoffs event in New Jersey, he played his way into the top 30 with even better showings in Boston and Chicago, and was 24th in the standings when he teed it up on Thursday at East Lake.
“I was excited to play today,” Castro said after shooting a first round 67 that was good for fifth place. “I was a little nervous, but I settled down quickly and played nicely.”
Castro estimated he had played East Lake as many as 100 times, mainly during his college years at Georgia Tech. But he said playing it in a tournament setting “is totally different.”
The only problems East Lake posed to Castro the first day were its subtle putting surfaces. Castro had four birdie putts between 10 and 13 feet on the first eight holes, but arrived at the par-5 ninth with eighth pars on his scorecard.
Castro reached the 600-yard hole in two and two-putted for birdie, and when he hit his approach shot inside a foot on the long, par-4 10th, his name was briefly at the top of East Lake’s leader boards.
An errant drive on the 12th led to his only bogey of the day, but Castro came back with birdies on two of his next three holes, hitting his approach to two feet at the 13th and chipping it close at the par-5 15th after coming up just short of the green with his second shot.
Castro’s opening 67 was a product of some superb ball striking, as he went 0-for-9 on the day on birdie putts between 7 ½ and 23 feet.
That pattern continued on Friday, as he again was unable to convert on four birdie putts between 7 and 17 feet on the first eight holes. The lid on the hole finally came off at the ninth, where he holed a 60-footer for eagle to make the turn in 1-under.
Castro was still 1-under going to 14, but missed the fairway and had to chip out, resulting in a bogey, He three-putted the 15th for par and bogeyed the 17th when he lit the lip of a fairway bunker with his second shot and watched it roll back to his feet. Other than the 60-footer on nine, his longest holed putt of the day was 4 ½ feet, as he settled for 71.
After making one putt of substance the first two days, Castro doubled that total in the third round, beginning with another from long range (42 ½ feet) on the 10th. He finally holed a putt tour players expect to occasionally make, rolling in a birdie try from 12 ½ feet at the 17th, but also had four bogeys on his card as he shot a 72.
Castro was even par for the tournament after 54 holes, and began his final round with a tee shot under trees in the rough, followed by a missed par putt from 12 feet.
But that was the only blemish on his card that day, as he combined some superb approach shots with a string of hard-earned pars on the back nine for a final round 65 that vaulted him into the top 10.
Three precise short iron/wedge shots produced birdies on holes 3, 8 and 9, as Castro turned in 2-under. Beginning at the eighth, Castro one-putted nine times in a 10-hole span, missing from 20 feet for birdie on the 13th.
Castro saved par four times on the back nine, utilizing some heady play, a deft short game and a putting touch missing for most of the first three rounds.
“I was a little wayward off the tee on 10 and 17, but I left myself in the best position possible to save par,” he said, pitching to two feet on the 10th and holing a 9-footer on the 17th. A nice bunker shot to four feet on the 11th and a 16-footer at the 16th preserved two more pars, with Castro adding birdies at 12, 13 and 15. An 8-footer at the 14th was the only one of three longer than three feet.
“Other than those two long putts, I made nothing the first three days,” Castro said. “I finally got a few 10-to-15-footers to fall. East Lake gave me a couple today.”
Castro came away with a check of $227,733.34, boosting his earnings for the year to almost $2.155 million, 29th on the final money list. He finished 21st on the Playoffs points list to collect another $220,000 in bonus money.
By making it to the Tour Championship, Castro earns invitations to the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open in 2014. His tie for 12th in the PGA guaranteed a return to that championship, and he is exempt into the 2014 World Golf Championship event at Doral.
Castro has worked his way up to 66th in the world rankings. If he is in the top 64 six weeks into the 2014 season, he will qualify for the WGC Match Play Championship for the first time. Castro is also in line to make his first WGC start late this month in China, but that was still undetermined when he headed home from East Lake for a well-deserved break.
The 28-year-old Castro enjoyed a solid season statistically in 2013, particularly in the ball striking categories. He was 22nd in fairways hit, 33rd in greens in regulation and 44th in total driving despite ranking 130 in driving distance.
The main concern for Castro is to improve his putting. He was ranked 164 and 155 in the two primary putting stats after placing 83rd in 2012 as a rookie. One of Castro’s most surprising stats for the 2013 season was his play on par 5s. Despite ranking in the bottom third on the PGA Tour in driving distance, Castro ranked second in par 5 scoring, due in part to his course management skills and wedge play.