Two years ago at this time, Roberto Castro was in the midst of a sensational sophomore season on the PGA Tour, which ended with an appearance in the Tour Championship at East Lake.
Castro, who grew up in the north Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta and was an All-American at Georgia Tech, had enjoyed success each step of the way from junior golf to the PGA Tour, culminating with his outstanding showing in 2013, when finished 21st in the final FedExCup standings and earned $2.155 million.
But after a significantly less successful showing in 2014, Castro lost his exempt status, and things haven’t gotten any better this year, with Castro facing the obstacle of a limited number of starts that has required him to play in Monday qualifiers to get into some events.
Through the first seven months of the 2014-15 PGA Tour schedule, Castro had made just eight starts, and even though he made five cuts, he barely registered on the FedExCup points list, ranking 210th, with just one finish better than 58th.
When Castro competed in last month’s U.S. Open Sectional qualifier at Hawks Ridge in Ball Ground, he had made just one PGA Tour start since mid-March, that coming in the Byron Nelson Championship, where he made the 36-hole cut but not the 54-hole cut, coming away with just one FedExCup point for his efforts.
Castro, who played his way into two events on the PGA Tour’s Florida swing in March through Monday qualifiers, put those experiences to use at Hawks Ridge. After firing an 8-under 64 in the morning round of the 36-hole qualifier, Castro followed with a 68 in the afternoon to finish third in the 42-player field.
Only the top three finishers earned spots in the U.S. Open, with Castro’s spot in jeopardy until younger brother Franco Castro missed a birdie putt on his final hole that would have forced a Castro brothers’ playoff for the final qualifying spot.
With Castro also in the field for the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis later that week, it gave him a relatively rare chance for back-to-back starts this season, with the likelihood of more PGA Tour appearances before the regular season ends in August.
It was an unusual and somewhat awkward situation for Castro, who stood next to the ninth green and watched as his brother narrowly missed a birdie putt on his final hole that would have sent the two to a playoff.
After the round, Castro related an observation from a veteran PGA Tour player that certainly applied to the conclusion of the U.S. Open qualifier.
“He said that if you play this game long enough, you’ll see everything. I think that goes to the top of the list.”
Castro said that very possibility was a topic of discussion during a practice round at Hawks Ridge. While that hypothetical situation seemed unlikely to occur, Castro wasn’t caught off guard when it did.
“I’m not surprised by anything in golf,” he said. “Anything can happen. You watch enough tour events and you know.”
When Castro finished his round, he was three shots clear of his brother in fourth place, but Franco birdied the sixth and seventh holes at Hawks Ridge before closing his round with a pair of pars.
Castro was hoping his U.S. Open appearance wound get his 2014-15 season headed in a positive direction after a mostly forgettable first half of the year.
“Just playing in the U.S. Open tells you where your game is at,” he observed.
Castro qualified for the Open as a PGA Tour rookie in 2012, and thanks to his outstanding 2013 season, was exempt from qualifying last year. He did not make it into the 2013 U.S. Open, but began the best three-month stretch of golf in his life shortly thereafter.
Two weeks after the Open, Castro finished second to Jay Haas in the AT&T National at Congressional, more than holding his own in a head-to-head final round battle. A month later, he tied for sixth in the Canadian Open, and in his next start tied for 12th in the PGA Championship in just his second appearance in one of golf’s four majors.
Castro was 41st in the FedExCup standings going into the 2013 Playoffs, but played well in all four events, placing ninth, 15th and ninth the last three to finish the year 21st in the standings. A final round 65 at East Lake ended Castro’s season on a high note, but it would be a while before Castro did anything to celebrate on the golf course.
After a trio of top 25 finishes last year on the West Coast, Castro went almost three months without a decent showing before tying for eighth at Quail Hollow in Charlotte. But Castro missed nine of his next 12 cuts and was unable to salvage his season with a respectable but not quite good enough showing in the regular season finale in Greensboro.
Castro finished the 2013-14 season 135th on the points list, and had to compete in the four-tournament Web.com Finals to retain his exempt status on the PGA Tour. Castro made the cut in all four events and added another top-10 finish in Charlotte, but came up short by less than $32. He shot higher than 74 in just one of 16 rounds, but his one high score proved costly, ending what had already been a disappointing season on a particularly sour note.
After competing in 60 tournaments in 2013 and ’14, Castro has not played nearly as much this year, which he said has its positive and negative aspects.
“I went crazy hard for two years. It’s a little frustrating not to get to play as much, but looking on the bright side, I’ve been home some for the first time in two years.”
Beginning with his start in the Byron Nelson, Castro was looking forward to a more active summer schedule on the PGA Tour, pointing out that he has “always played my best golf in the summer. I still have time to make some hay.”
Castro said there was no obvious answer for the decline in his play from 2013 to 2014.
“The difference was not huge. I just didn’t play as good. Every little part of my game just did not come together.”
Other than driving distance and putting, neither of which were the strengths of Castro’s game during his successful 2013 season, Castro’s statistics dropped off measurably last year. He hit fewer fairways and far fewer greens, and when he did hit greens in regulation, he did not make nearly as many birdies. He went from 42nd in scoring in 2013 to 158th in 2014, both numbers very similar to his standing on the points and money lists.
Castro said his problems began with his driving, but the most glaring drop in his ball-striking stats came in greens in regulation, which went from 33rd in ’13 to 169th in ’14. The most consistent aspect of his game remains his putting, which was not that great even when he enjoyed his career best season and is ranked near the bottom of the PGA Tour stats this year.
“I’ve been playing good,” he said. “I just haven’t shot low scores.”
After his strong performance in U.S. Open qualifying, Castro came back with his best showing of 2014 in Memphis, closing with a 66 to tie for 40th. He picked up enough FedExCup points to move up from 210th in the standings to 193rd, which doesn’t sound like much, but will be critical when the PGA Tour regular season ends in Greensboro in August.
The top 125 players on the final regular season points list make it into the FedExCup Playoffs and are fully exempt for the 2015-16 season. Those who finish between 126 and 200 will play in the Web.com Finals, with the top 25 money winners from that 4-tournament series joining the top 25 money winners from the Web.com Tour regular season money list on the 2015-16 PGA Tour.
Those who finish outside the top 200 are not guaranteed full Web.com Tour status next year, and Castro does not want to find himself in that situation. Castro has made just two Web.com starts this season, but might have to return to that tour late in the season if he drops out of the top 200 in the FedExCup standings.
Castro has a track record of success on the Web.com Tour, but after his outstanding PGA Tour showing in 2013, would just as soon not have to return to golf’s version of baseball’s Class AAA. He finished 6th and 12th in consecutive Web. com starts late in 2009, and played his way onto the tour late in the 2010 season when he ran off three straight top-20 finishes, highlighted by a runner-up finish in Wichita.
Exempt on that tour for the first time in 2011, Castro finished in the top 25 on the money list to move up to the PGA Tour in 2012, and after retaining his playing privileges, enjoyed his career best season in 2013.
Castro admitted that following up a season like 2013 “is really hard,” considering the level of energy you have to expend to play at that level for an extended period of time. He said he believes he has the ability to get to that level again, but for players who are not blessed with exceptional talent, “You can lose that little edge” that separates a successful season from an unproductive one.
Castro’s time to turn around a difficult season is dwindling, and after his excellent play in the U.S. Open qualifier and strong finish in Memphis, he missed the cut by just one shot at Chambers Bay and did not make it to the weekend in Hartford.