U.S. Open sectional qualifying is always an adventure for former Georgia Tech standout Roberto Castro, and this week’s qualifier at Ansley Golf Club’s Settindown Creek was no different.
Castro, a member at Settindown Creek, will be making his fifth U.S. Open appearance in the last seven years next week at Shinnecock Hills, but for the third time in that span, barely survived a sectional qualifier.
Just as he did in 2012 in Memphis, Castro earned his spot in a sudden death playoff, scoring a birdie on the par-5 first hole at Settindown Creek to defeat UNC-Greensboro senior Bryce Hendrix.
Castro and Hendrix were the only two players to break 70 in the afternoon round, with Hendrix carding a 67 – the low round of the day – and Castro posting a 3-under 69. The two finished at 1-under 143, one shot behind co-medalists Michael Hebert and Garrett Rank.
Like Castro, Hebert is also a member of both Settindown Creek and the Web.com Tour, with each player residing in Atlanta. Rank is a Canadian amateur with one of the most unusual professions for a top mid-amateur, working as an NHL referee.
“I always make it difficult,” Castro said of his recent experiences with U.S. Open qualifying.
The first time in qualified came in his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2012. Castro contracted food poisoning the previous weekend, but got a break when the Monday qualifier in Memphis was postponed a day by rain.
Castro played 40 holes the next day without a bogey, surviving a 3-way playoff for the final spot that took four extra holes. Three years ago at Hawk’s Ridge in Ball Ground, Castro appeared to be secure in the third and final qualifying spot after scores of 64 and 68. But his younger brother Franco Castro closed within a shot of him with a pair of late birdies, and just missed a birdie putt on the final hole that would have forced a playoff with his older brother, who was watching from just off the green.
“That was so weird,” recalled Roberto, who had younger brother Franco caddying for him in the Settindown Creek qualifier.
Castro was exempt from qualifying in both 2014 and ’17 after finishing in the top 30 in the FedExCup standings in 2013 and ’16. But after a six-year run on the PGA Tour, Castro is back on the Web.com Tour this season after a difficult 2017 season on the PGA Tour.
Motivation is frequently a serious concern for players like Castro who have enjoyed success on the PGA Tour but find themselves back in golf’s version of MLB’s Class AAA. Castro did not get off to the best start this season, but has been the tour’s hottest player this spring, with consecutive finishes of second, T7, T5, T8 and T14, missing a fifth straight top-10 finish in the latter by one shot.
Castro enjoyed similar stretches of quality play during his two best seasons on the PGA Tour, and said “it’s hard to compare,” whether this hot streak is any better than those.
“Different year, different tournaments,” he observed.
Castro was in the top 10 on the Web.com money list after his run of five straight strong efforts, but has slipped to 13th after taking the last two weeks off. Castro was relieved to play as well as he did Monday after his short break, but he will be back at work this week in a Web.com event in Chicago, as he endeavors to end the season in the top 25 and earn a return to the PGA Tour.
Next week will mark Castro’s brief return to golf’s biggest stage, but will have no bearing on his primary goal, which is a top-25 finish on the Web.com money list.
“This is a cool opportunity,” Castro said. “But I’m trying not to over-think it. Playing in a U.S. Open and playing at Shinnecock, it’s a different game up there.”
Castro has yet to make the cut in any of his four previous U.S. Open appearances, missing by a shot in 2012 and ’15, both on the West Coast.
This will be Castro’s first tournament at Shinnecock Hills, and he has enjoyed most of his success this season on courses he had never competed on prior to the tournament.
That was not the case in the U.S. Open qualifier, where Castro was playing on a course where he has been a member since 2014 after leaving the Golf Club of Georgia.
“When I’m not playing in tournaments, I’m playing here,” Castro says of Settindown Creek, considered one of the best and most challenging courses in the state. “I’ve got a lot of rounds under my belt and they take good care of me here.”
Castro said playing a tournament on your home course “is comfortable,” but there’s also a down side.
“You hit some of the stupidest shots when you’re playing your home course in a tournament. There are holes you hit the fairway every time, then you hit it in the woods in a tournament.”
Castro said a hole where he hit his tee shot in the trees turned out to be the key hole for him among the 37 he played Monday.
Castro’s long day began in disappointing fashion, as he bogeyed the par-5 10th to begin his opening round, and settled for a 2-over 74. Castro was even par through eight holes of the afternoon round before making his move beginning with a birdie at the par-4 ninth.
After a par at the par-5 10th, Castro hit his tee shot in the woods on the par-4 11th and was forced to pitch out.
“I got up and down for par from 80 yards and that kept me in it,” Castro said. “Then I birdied the next two holes” – the long, par-3 12th and par-4 13th.
Castro also scored birdies on two of Settindown’s par 5s, one of them on what he considers the easiest hole on the course (No. 4), where he needed to chip in. The birdie at the 16th put him into a tie for the lead at 2-under, but he hit his tee shot on the par-3 17th over the green into the back bunker and made bogey to drop to a tie for third with Hendrix, who shot 32 on his final nine for a 67.
The playoff was held on the par-5 first hole and Castro hit two quality shots to leave himself 80 yards for his third.
“The key was the lay-up shot,” Castro said. “I got it all way to the end of the fairway, and 80-yard shots are the strength of my game.”
Castro hit his short third to about 10 feet. After Hendrix missed his birdie try, Castro holed his putt to earn a spot in the field for next week’s U.S. Open.
Hebert, a member at Settindown the past few years, shot 70-72—142 to tie Rank for medalist honors, surviving a double bogey at the 18th, his ninth hole of the afternoon round. A birdie at the long, par-4 sixth got him to 2-under and he maintained his position by closing with three pars.
This is Hebert’s fourth season on the Web.com Tour, and he currently stands 48th on the money list after placing between 84 and 100 in his first three seasons. Hebert is a Florida native who played his college golf at Auburn.
Also qualifying for the U.S. Open on Monday were three current or former Georgia Tech golfers. Current Georgia Tech golfer Tyler Strafaci got the third and final spot in Jupiter, Fla., winning a 6-players-for-1-spot playoff at 3-under 141. Recent Georgia Tech golfer Richy Werenski, in his second season on the PGA Tour, was second at 140. Among the players losing in the playoff was former UGA golfer Christo Greyling.
Ollie Schniederjans of Powder Springs, Werenski’s teammate at Georgia Tech and fellow PGA Tour member, shot 6-under 138 to qualify on the number in Columbus, O. Duluth’s Stewart Cink, also a former Yellow Jacket, and St. Simons resident Patton Kizzire missed by one shot at 139. Augusta native Scott Brown also missed by one shot in the Memphis sectional qualifier.
Smoltz, Skinner qualify for U.S. Senior Open
Atlanta Braves Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz of Alpharetta won a three-hole playoff to get the final spot from a U.S. Senior Open qualifier, played last week at Planterra Ridge.
Georgia PGA member Sonny Skinner, a recent inductee into the Georgia Golf Hall of Fame, shot 4-under 68 to share medalist honors with Atlanta amateur Jack Larkin. Tying for third at 69 was Smoltz, Atlanta amateur Brian Ferris and former tour player Brian Tennyson.
Both Smoltz and Ferris birdied the first playoff hole – the par-4 18th, while Tennyson made bogey and was eliminated. Smoltz and Ferris both bogeyed the par-5 10th before the playoff returned to the 18th.
As Smoltz explained during a call-in to an MLB broadcast (he’s the lead MLB analyst for Fox Sports), Ferris “messed up” on the third playoff hole. “Then I messed up and he messed up again.”
The result: Smoltz won the hole and the playoff with a double bogey.
To get into the playoff, Smoltz birdied three of his last four holes to shoot 4-under 32 on his final nine. Skinner and Larkin made one bogey each in their rounds 0f 68.
Stephen Keppler, the Director of Golf at Marietta CC, missed the playoff by one shot at 70, carding 16 pars and two birdies on his round.
The 2018 U.S. Senior Open will be played June 28-July 1 in Colorado Springs, Colo.