Last fall Ricky Castillo and his head coach at the University of Florida, JC Deacon, sat down at a Starbucks outside Olympia Fields Country Club near Chicago for one of their many heart-to-heart conversations.
Castillo (above) had just opened a tournament with a disheartening 73, another pedestrian round for a player accustomed to being in contention at major amateur events. In his first four tournaments of his collegiate career with the Gators he finished no better than a tie for 15th place and became frustrated with the middling results.
Deacon had a question for his prized recruit.
“I asked him, ‘Do you want to be the best player in the world?’ ” Deacon said. “He said yes and I told him exactly what he needed to do to get there. We talked about his emotions and his self-talk, needing to be a lot more positive. He was never the same after that.”
Coaches don’t always provide such a direct challenge, digging deep into the minds of their players. But Deacon and Castillo don’t have a typical relationship.
They first met seven years ago when Deacon was an assistant coach at University of Nevada Las Vegas and was recruiting Castillo’s older brother, Derek, who would go on to play for the Rebels before transferring to Cal State Fullerton. Ricky, just 11 years old, came to the meeting with his brother and was focused intently on everything being said. Deacon asked the boys’ father, Mark, whether Ricky also played. He was told that the younger of the two might in fact be a far better player and could be destined for college golf stardom. Deacon told the impressionable younger Castillo brother then and there that he eventually would play for him, wherever that would be.
It wasn’t at UNLV. Deacon took the head coaching job at Florida in 2014, meaning that Castillo would have to travel about 2,380 miles east from his home in Yorba Linda, California, to Gainesville, Florida, in order to play for the college coach who quickly took an interest in him long before he blossomed into one of the best junior players in the country. As the accolades grew – Castillo earned a spot on the 2018 Junior Ryder Cup, was a two-time AJGA Rolex First-Team All-American and qualified for three U.S. Amateurs by age 17 – his commitment to Deacon and the Gators never wavered.
“It’s crazy to think that I committed as a freshman (in high school),” Castillo said. “And to finally get a chance to be there, it’s been a learning experience I’ve really enjoyed. I know I can trust JC and that’s been important to have a mentor through my first year, and then now during an unusual circumstance.”
Despite what Castillo considered to be a mediocre fall start to his college career, the turnaround he experienced this spring showed just how high his ceiling might be. Castillo won the Sea Best Invitational and Gators Invitational by a combined 11 strokes, had the lowest single-season scoring average in program history (70.08), earned the Phil Mickelson Outstanding Freshman Award and took home first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors. It all came in an abbreviated season, but the results pushed Castillo to No. 2 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. It would be a lofty endeavor to become the best player the school has seen given that the Gators have won four national championships and boast a handful of PGA Tour players, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
“He was the mentally strongest player in college golf. I think only five kids beat him in three tournaments. Now that he’s right near the top of the amateur rankings, he’s going to have a target on his back every week."
When you watch Castillo play in person, you see a strikingly polished player who enjoys hitting an approach shot to the middle of the green when he isn’t comfortable with a particular hole location. He’s slender but fit, wearing sunglasses wrapped around the back of his hat similar to how former Gator Chris DiMarco used to. Although he won’t overwhelm a course with power, his consistent ball-striking and above-average putting provide the framework for a Xander Schauffele-type player without obvious weakness.
That especially includes between the ears, which Castillo has learned a lot about since that meeting with Deacon at Starbucks. His growing acceptance of wherever a shot may end up is now becoming an asset rather than a liability.
“He was the mentally strongest player in college golf,” Deacon said. “I think only five kids beat him in three tournaments. Now that he’s right near the top of the amateur rankings, he’s going to have a target on his back every week. This past year he was a freshman who had to prove himself, and now he has to go and back it up. Getting stronger in the gym is going to help, but being able to control his emotions and go through life experiences in college is really going to help him.”
Castillo has spent most of the COVID-19 pandemic back home in California and was greatly limited with how much he could practice during the spring. After course restrictions were lifted and he got back into competitive shape, his first tournament this summer came at the recent Western Amateur. He picked up right where he left off by making a run to the semifinals at Indiana’s Crooked Stick Golf Club. In what arguably was the match of the tournament, Castillo beat defending U.S. Amateur champion Andy Ogletree in 20 holes. A day later, he rallied from 3 down against Oklahoma State’s Rasmus Neergaard-Petersen but found himself on the losing side of another extra-holes showdown.
“For it being my first event back after five months without competition, I thought I played well,” Castillo said. “It’s a difficult tournament to win but I feel pretty comfortable with match play and it was a good experience going forward.”
He was due to come into this week’s U.S. Amateur at Bandon Dunes as an obvious favorite, particularly since he made a run to the round of 16 at Pinehurst last year. However, Castillo has chosen to withdraw due to a non-coronavirus-related illness, unfortunate given what he is capable of and because it calls into question when he will tee it up next. The Gators play in the SEC, which has yet to announce plans for golf this fall, but the Atlantic Coast Conference already has canceled play and other leagues still could follow suit.
“I haven’t really thought that far ahead,” Castillo said, “but the big thing would just to be able to play and practice in Florida even if we aren’t competing in college events as a team.”
The next big step in Castillo’s journey is a likely Walker Cup selection for the United States next spring as he builds off his sophomore season, whenever that will be. There is little option to turn professional in the current climate – Korn Ferry Tour Q-School has been canceled this year and no player is losing status – but Castillo confirmed that he has no plans for such a move regardless of how tenuous college golf appears at the moment.
“I still have a lot of growing to do and I’m focused on winning an individual and team national championship before I leave school,” Castillo said. “There are a lot of ways to (turn professional) when that time comes. You have someone like Collin Morikawa who stayed and got his degree or you have someone like Matthew Wolff who saw a good opportunity to leave earlier. I’m not close to that decision yet.”
When that time does come, he certainly will rely on Deacon to guide him.
“It sounds scary, but I can see him making a big jump and playing even better than he did last year,” Deacon said. “He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever been around. He has something in him that I’ve never seen before.”