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Thursday, December 09, 2021

Focus, drive prepare Ricky Castillo for junior season

After his first postseason in 2021, the junior is ready to take his team farther

Florida's Ricky Castillo  competes in the first round of the 2021 NCAA  Cle Elum Regional at Tumble Creek Golf Club in Cle Elum, Wash., on May 19, 2021. (Photography by Stephen Brashear/Red Box Pictures)
Florida's Ricky Castillo competes in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Cle Elum Regional at Tumble Creek Golf Club in Cle Elum, Wash., on May 19, 2021. (Photography by Stephen Brashear/Red Box Pictures)

Ricky Castillo played his final round of the spring season in Glendale, Arizona, competing for an individual title in the final round at the NCAA national championship.

The Florida junior’s first taste of the game, however, materialized in much less intense atmospheres with much lower stakes: friendly, non-competitive matches with his older brother, Derek Castillo.

“I got into golf because my older brother got into golf, and I always looked up to him,” Castillo said. “That’s what I wanted to do just because my older brother was doing it. We were just out there enjoying it and having fun with my dad.”

Golf became an integral part of Castillo’s life at age 5, when he first began playing with Derek. After learning from his father, Mark Castillo, he became a regular on the green.

“[His] work ethic is funny because his life is golf, and his love is golf, so if you want to call golfing all the time ‘work,’ his work ethic was terrific,” Mark said. “He just wanted to go all the time.”

That same motivation which drives the now-No. 6 men’s amateur in the world to succeed in Gainesville was first fostered in his hometown of Yorba Linda, California, where he did whatever he could to get on the course as much as possible.

“Ricky is not a country club kid,” his father Mark Castillo said. “He couldn’t just go to a golf course whenever he wanted and play, so he had to kind of work around the schedules of the golf courses to be able to practice.”

An avid golfer himself, Mark became the head coach on Castillo’s team at Valencia High School. 

“We didn’t have the best team or anything, but I really enjoyed my team,” Castillo said. “Most players don’t have their dad as their high school golf coach, but I got the chance to have that, so it was pretty awesome.”

Castillo built quite the portfolio during his high school years: He was named a two-time American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) Rolex Junior All-American and represented the U.S. at the 2018 Junior Ryder Cup. 

Despite Castillo’s success as a Valencia Tiger, his father emphasized his behavior off the course -— advice Castillo still applies to his game years later.

Be a good person before being a good golfer. Your golf will be better if you’re happy with who you are.

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Ricky wasn’t the first Castillo family member who played for Florida head coach J.C. Deacon. He worked as an assistant coach at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas from 2011 to 2014, where he coached Derek. Deacon met Castillo when the Californian was 11.

“He’s always been an unbelievable player since the first time I ever met him,” Deacon said. “He’s always been pretty quiet and reserved and confident, and he’s just kind of really blossoming those attributes that are obviously very, very important to be a successful athlete.”

Deacon spotted Castillo’s knack for the sport early on and knew he wanted him in Gainesville. 

Deacon manifested it. 

You’re going to play for me one day. 

Sure enough, almost a decade later, Castillo followed Deacon across the country to the Sunshine State.

“Florida wasn’t ever really in my mind or anything like that,” Castillo said. “As soon as I went here, I just knew that it was the place for me.”

Castillo acclimated to his new environment quickly with the support from his team.

Castillo connected with former Gator John Axelsen, who was a junior when Castillo first arrived on campus. Axelsen guided and mentored his younger teammate. 

You don’t need to do anything special. Just play your game. Do what you know you can do. You’ll be perfectly fine.

Castillo listened to Axelson’s advice and began to bloom as he started his collegiate career. In his debut season, he led the team in scoring average (70.08), top-25 finishes (7) and total eagles and birdies (89 combined). He capped off his season with back-to-back wins at the Sea Best Invitational and the Gator Invitational in the spring, the latter of which was played on Florida’s home course.

There isn’t a recipe to follow that will shape someone into a player like Castillo. He thrives on his detail-oriented nature. 

“Sticking to the same plan, being more organized [is] as simple as keeping my room clean and keeping my car clean,” Castillo said. “Just stuff like that because it leads to the golf course. I’ll feel better about myself if I know when I come back, I'll have a clean room or clean car.”

With his mindset locked in, the Yorba Linda native showed out in his second year at Florida.

After the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the postseason of his freshman year, Castillo teed into his first championship in the spring of 2021. The Gators finished 22nd and didn’t qualify for the match play of the national championship, but Castillo advanced to the final day as an individual and finished 12th. 

The then-sophomore led the team in scoring average, birdies and eagles and top-25 finishes for the second straight season. Deacon, however, said his young star yearns for more than accolades for himself. 

“He really wants this team to be great,” Deacon said. “That's something that I really admire about him. It's not just about him. He wants this team to be successful, and he’s willing to help any one of his teammates.”

Florida’s goals are loftier than before with Castillo’s direction, as the team begins a new campaign.

“On paper, we have one of the best teams out there,” Castillo said. “I think we have the best team out there. We haven't really played that well, but I know we just have to have a few things click and go our way and just keep working hard in every aspect of our life.”

But Castillo feels a change. This year’s squad has made the locker room a more comfortable atmosphere than previous teams.

“Freshman year, we had friends, but everybody kind of had their own little groups of two or three where they would hang out,” Castilllo said. “Now, we literally have everybody hanging out at the same time, all the time, so it's just stuff like that that really helps us.”

While Castillo senses the team is ready to turn a corner, he also reflects on the changes he experienced. He competes for national championships instead of playing for fun with his brother. He plays for a Division I program instead of his local high school.

However, all the changes haven’t altered his love for the game. Instead, they deepened it. Now, he’s ready to lead his team as far as it can go.

Contact Carson Cashion at ccashion@alligator.org. Contact him @carsoncashion.

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