Coming into the final FedExCup Playoffs event prior to the Tour Championship, Roberto Castro faced a tall order to achieve a top 30 finish in the points standings and a spot in the field at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club.
Castro, who grew up in Alpharetta, enjoyed a successful four years at Georgia Tech and has settled in Atlanta, needed to finish third at Crooked Stick to ensure a spot in the Tour Championship.
A 7-under 65 gave Castro the opening round lead, and he remained tied at the top after 36 holes following a second straight 65, sharing the lead with likely 2016 Player of the Year Dustin Johnson, who carded a 63 in the second round.
Castro and Johnson were paired together in the third round, and for 13 holes Castro stayed close to 2016’s best player, trailing by just one shot despite not making a birdie in his round to that point.
But Johnson closed with birdies on four of the last five holes while Castro bogeyed the 18th to conclude a round that did not have a birdie on his scorecard after totaling 15 the first two days.
The 74 dropped Castro to fourth, six behind Johnson, and he was paired in the next to last group of the final round with J.B. Holmes, like Johnson one of the game’s longest hitters.
Castro needed to end up ahead of Holmes to finish third, as Johnson and Paul Casey comfortably held on to the top two spots.
After struggling a bit in his pairing with Johnson, Castro got off to a quick start the next day when he birdied the opening hole. He was still 1-under on the round and tied with Holmes when he reached the par-4 seventh hole.
From 160 yards out, Castro holed his second shot for eagle and his matter-of-fact response to his sensational shot elicited some bemused commentary from the NBC announcers. The shot put Castro in third place outright and he never faltered despite the pressure of knowing exactly what he needed to do to qualify for the Tour Championship.
Castro notched nine pars and two birdies over his final 11 holes, reaching two par 5s in two for easy birdies. His only nervous moment came on the par-3 17th, when his tee shot sailed left of the green, which is guarded by a lake. A splash in the water just off the edge of the putting surface convinced the NBC’s broadcast crew that Castro’s tee shot was wet, but a replay of the shot revealed a different scenario.
Instead of landing in the water, Castro’s ball imbedded in the bank several feet away. The splash came from a frog that hopped into the lake and a fish that went airborne after the frog. Castro saved par with a deft chip and closed out a 67 with another par at the 18th, finishing six behind Johnson and three in back of Casey, but a comfortable five shots in front of five players who tied for fourth, Holmes among them.
Finishing third in the Playoffs event at Crooked Stick resulted in a nice list of perks for Castro. He moved up from 53 to 21 in the FedExCup standings to make the Tour Championship field for the second time in four years.
By ending the year among the top 20 in the standings, Castro qualifies for the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open for 2017. He ended the 2015-16 PGA Tour season 18th on the money list for the 2017 PGA Championship largely due to the $578,000 he earned at Crooked Stick, and if he remains in the top 70 before next year’s PGA, he will have qualified for all four majors.
Castro has also earned spots in the next two WGC events, one later this year in Shanghai and the first WGC event of 2017 in Mexico, which has taken the place of the long-running tournament at Doral. He ended the PGA Tour season 66th in the World Rankings, and if he is among the top 64 by mid-March of next year, will be in the Match Play Championship for the first time.
“That was huge,” Castro said of his showing at Crooked Stick. “You have to put yourself in position, and I did after the first two rounds. But it takes four good days if you want to contend or win.”
Castro did not have his best stuff in the third round, but turned in a clutch performance the next day, and was enjoying the fruits of his labor 10 days later on the grounds at East Lake.
A birdie at the par-5 18th in the opening round at East Lake gave Castro a little solace after four bogeys earlier on the back nine left him with a 73. He matched par Friday with a 70 before moving up the leader board with a third round 67 that included six birdies. He needed another round in the 60s on Sunday for a top-10 finish, and was in position to do that as he played the 18th hole, but never recovered after an errant tee shot and had to scramble for a bogey.
Castro tied for 17th at even par 280 after closing with a 70, and would have tied for 10th had he birdied the 18th, which he did in each of the first three rounds.
In his first appearance in the Tour Championship in 2013, Castro shot a final round 65 to tie for ninth at 5-under 275 to close out what was his best year in professional golf to that point.
Unfortunately for Castro, that was his last highlight for a while. He finished outside the top 125 in the FedExCup standings in 2013-14 and missed regaining his exempt status on the PGA Tour for 2014-15 by around $30 in the Web.com Finals.
He retained limited status on the PGA Tour for 2014-15, but made it into only 16 events and headed back to the Web.com Finals. This time, Castro recorded three straight top-10s to close out the 4-tournament series to return to full-time PGA Tour status. He played well from the outset before ending the year 22nd in the final FedExCup standings.
Castro will begin the 2016-17 PGA Tour season determined not to repeat his struggles of 2014, and said the conditions between then and now are different.
“My tank was on empty after 2013,” Castro said following the opening round of the Tour Championship. “It was the end of grinding in college, grinding on the mini-tours, grinding on the Web.com, then two years on Tour. We were excited to be here (at East Lake), but both my wife and I were like, ‘let it end’. We never regrouped. It was the perfect storm.”
In preparation for what could be a grueling FedExCup finish to the 2015-16 season, Castro says he took more weeks off during the Summer. He does not expect a repeat of 2014, but recognizes that it is possible.
“Guys have gone from the Ryder Cup to the Web.com and vice versa. “
Castro has experienced a similar feeling, going from playing in the Tour Championship in 2013 to the Web.com Finals in 2014, and then from the Web.com Finals in 2015 to the Tour Championship in 2016.
“And I’m generally like a pretty consistent player,” Castro observed. “But that’s the Tour. I played in all four majors and a WGC in 2014 and lost my card.”
Castro’s 2015-16 success began last Fall in Mississippi, where he shot 62 in the opening round and ended up tied for fourth. He contended again early in ’16 Pebble Beach, but fell back to a tie for eighth after a final round 74. He came close to his first win in Charlotte, losing in a playoff, and added several more solid showings before his big week in Indiana.
After missing most of the Fall in the 2013-14 season, in part due to a death in the family, Castro is focused on getting off to a strong start when the PGA Tour resumes in October.
“The Fall is a really big deal. I’m playing four times this Fall. Since May, I’ve been mentally preparing to go all the way to Sea Island.”
The 2016 portion of the 2016-17 schedule concludes with the RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club, with Castro’s 2017 itinerary now including a second stop in Augusta.
Castro’s first appearance in the Masters did not go as well as he hoped, and he has a thought on how he can improve on his previous showing next April.
“I think I’ll make less of a big deal of playing in it than the last time,” He said.