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Renewed Ricky: Castillo rediscovers focus, enjoyment to open last U.S. Amateur strong

Ricky Castillo

PARAMUS, N.J. – Florida head coach J.C. Deacon was beaming as he walked off the par-4 18th green at Ridgewood Country Club on Monday evening.

“He was focused on every, single, shot,” exclaimed Deacon, who is on the bag for his star senior Ricky Castillo for as long as Castillo lasts at this 122nd U.S. Amateur.

Judging by Castillo’s play Monday – an opening 1-under 70 as cool as the SoCal native’s look these days (shades, pukka shells and a second chained cross necklace) – Deacon may want to plan on at least a few more days away from campus. Castillo is just two shots off the first-round lead having fired one of just three afternoon-wave rounds in red numbers between the two courses, Ridgewood and Arcola Country Club.

“Just the level of the golf course, you really have to be patient out here, and that really separates good golf from bad golf, and not only that, but good decisions from bad decisions,” Castillo said. “Having that experience really helps. It was not playing easy out there today; it got really windy and the greens got really firm and really fast. I was thinking anything around par was going to be a good score, so to come out with 70, I’m pretty happy about it.”

Full-field scores from the U.S. Amateur

That’s the keyword: happy. At times last season, starting in the fall, golf began to feel more like a job for the former national freshman of the year and 2021 Walker Cupper.

“I was so focused on winning that I wasn’t having fun anymore,” Castillo said.

His results suffered. He didn’t finish better than T-39 in three fall starts, and while he rebounded in the spring with five top-10s, his T-61 finish at the NCAA Championship – and another failed attempt to make match play by the Gators – left a bad taste in his mouth. He also finished the season ranked 68th by Golfstat and didn’t earn All-America status.

Despite his up-and-down junior season, Castillo remains a top pro prospect. He’s already lined up everything in preparation for turning pro after next spring’s NCAAs. He knows, at the end of the day, he can beat anybody.

Yet, when summer arrived, Castillo needed to step away from competitive golf. Not all golf, but for a couple months he mostly practiced and played casual rounds at Alta Vista Golf Course, the semi-private course near Castillo’s hometown of Yorba Linda, California, where he and his older brother, Derek, learned the game.

“I felt like I needed to take time off, re-focus and get back to my roots,” Castillo said.

Part of his recharge included focusing on the breathing techniques that he had learned at the start of the year when Castillo and his Florida teammates sat down over Zoom for two hours with Sean Foley. He didn’t quite go as far as getting back into yoga, a frequent team activity during the spring, but you get the idea.

When Castillo returned to competition, at last month’s Western Amateur, he found himself with a renewed focus, and for the fourth straight year, he made the Sweet 16 – a feat that’s difficult to accomplish once, let along four straight times.

“The Western was big,” Castillo said. “It’s so easy to think ahead at these events (U.S. Amateur being another), but the easiest thing for me is to just stay level-headed, not get too high or low, and take things one shot at a time.”

And, of course, have fun.

Castillo, typically a fast player, has made a concerted effort to walk slower to his golf ball during rounds. In the past, he’d race between shots, only to find himself hitting shots with a high heart rate.

His stroll now more leisurely, it will also allow Castillo to enjoy the ride as he competes in what will be his last USGA championship as an amateur and next year closes out his amateur career.

“I just let my head get in the way for a few months,” Castillo said, “but I found my way back.”