Ricky Castillo delivers in extras to send Florida to NCAA final vs. Ross Steelman-anchored Georgia Tech
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – As soon as Florida State junior Brett Roberts asked Florida senior Ricky Castillo to move his mark, Gators head coach J.C. Deacon knew that Roberts likely had to make it.
Roberts was facing 20 feet for birdie on Grayhawk’s par-4 10th hole, the third extra hole in what had suddenly become the deciding match in Tuesday afternoon’s NCAA Championship semifinal between the two in-state rivals. Castillo, meanwhile, was a few feet inside of his opponent, and on the same line. If Roberts missed, Castillo, one of the most clutch putters in the country, would get a great teach.
After Roberts’ putt slid by low, Castillo re-marked and, on cue, drained his.
“I’ve played this course a lot,” Castillo said, “and I know that putt breaks a lot more than people think. Whatever I thought, I put a little bit extra on it, about 5 feet high, just so I could have it die in there, and as soon as I hit it, I knew it was on a really good line.”
Before the clinching putt even got to the hole, Castillo loaded up his right arm. And when it fell, Castillo unleashed the powerful fist pump while letting out a huge roar.
“A dagger fist pump from ol’ Rick!” Deacon followed, screaming aloud as he and the rest of the Gators mobbed their hero, who had just sent Florida, in match play for the first time at nationals, to its first NCAA Championship final, where the Gators will meet Georgia Tech, a 3-2 winner over top-seeded North Carolina.
“I’ve known all these guys for years, and we’ve played together a long time,” Castillo said. “And, you know, when they’re counting on you, and you can deliver, it’s a pretty special feeling. There’s nothing like it honestly.”
Deacon has known Castillo since Castillo was 11 years old, when Deacon was an assistant at UNLV and recruiting Castillo’s older brother, Derek. There was something special, though, about the younger Castillo bro, and even to this day, Deacon can’t fully explain the complexity of it.
“He’s got a special gift,” Deacon said. “I got to walk those playoff holes with him, and that’s just his element, that’s where he wants to be. It’s where he feels comfortable, and it’s where he thrives.
“And he’s just got an answer for every situation.”
Especially in match play. Castillo’s record in the format is remarkable. Not only is he now 8-3-1 in college match play, including 2-0 this week, but he’s also shined countless times at the most prestigious match-play championships. He’s made the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur three times. He’s won three matches at two different U.S. Juniors. At the grueling Western Amateur, he’s qualified for the 16-man match play four times, reaching two semifinals. And at the 2021 Walker Cup, Castillo went a perfect 4-0.
So, with his Gators’ team – though talented with NCAA individual champion Fred Biondi and two-time Asia-Pacific Amateur winner Yuxin Lin also in the lineup – in uncharted territory at nationals, Deacon leaned on Castillo in the anchor spot.
It helped even more that Castillo teed off in Tuesday morning’s quarterfinals opposite Virginia’s Ben James, the likely national freshman of the year, with an extra edge. Castillo closed Monday’s final round of stroke play with a costly bogey on Grayhawk’s par-4 finishing hole that not only dropped him out of the top 10 individually but also kept him from improving two more spots in PGA Tour University, to No. 7, which would’ve probably been enough to get him into every Korn Ferry Tour event this summer.
“To be honest, I think that worked in the team’s favor because it pissed Ricky off,” Deacon said. “He didn’t say much last night, and he didn’t say anything this morning. And when Ricky gets that look in his eye, get out of his way.”
Added Castillo: “I was disappointed for a while, but I just knew that my team is out here counting on me.”
After trouncing James, 4 and 3, in a 3-2 Gators’ win over the Cavaliers, Castillo again back-ended Deacon’s lineup for the semis. But Florida State put two points on the board – an easy one with Jack Bigham’s 6-and-5 rout of Lin, and another after Frederik Kjettrup topped Matthew Kress, 3 and 1 – and Castillo suddenly found himself the potential victim of a clinching point, 2 down with three holes to play.
Castillo, though, didn’t quit. Despite finding the front-right bunker at the par-3 16th hole, he got up and down to save par and win the hole. Then at the drivable par-4 17th hole, Castillo hit what Deacon described as the “prettiest 3-wood that you’ve ever seen,” a tight draw that hit the green, ran up the slope, used the fringe to kill some speed and finished 15 feet away. A cozy first putt tied the match. But with all the momentum, Castillo spun a drive well right and into the rough, just over the bunker, with some 210 yards left, over water and with a stiff wind at his back.
Deacon considers Castillo world-class in making flush contact from even the worst of lies. As a kid, Castillo would often finish several hours before his brother at tournaments around his hometown of Yorba Linda, California, and as he waited, he’d head to the practice area and see if he could scramble from seemingly impossible spots – bushes, rocks, behind buildings.
So, this lie on Tuesday, it was nothing Castillo hadn’t seen before. And with an 8-iron, he made a steep strike, drew clean contact, and left himself a 15-yard chip from just off the back of the green. Roberts, meanwhile, found the left bunker with his approach. Both would bogey to extend the match. Two straight par-tying holes would follow, at No. 10 and again at No. 18, where Castillo hit another deft approach, this time finding the green from the right fairway bunker, before Castillo finally put away Roberts with birdie on the 21st hole in what he described as probably his greatest match-play achievement.
“I would put this above the Walker Cup,” Castillo said.
With Castillo in the anchor position for a third time in Wednesday’s final against the Yellow Jackets, that means he’ll face a back-end star that might not have all the credentials of Castillo but who has played better than the Gators’ standout so far this week. Georgia Tech senior Ross Steelman nearly won the NCAA individual competition before finishing runner-up. He then rolled through Castillo’s Walker Cup teammate, Pepperdine’s William Mouw, in the quarters, 5 and 4, and dispatched North Carolina’s Peter Fountain, 1 up, later in the day for a deciding point of his own.
Prior to this spring’s ACC Championship, the Yellow Jackets got together to decide who would anchor should they make match play. Steelman, in his second season with the squad after transferring from Missouri, won the vote unanimously, and he embraced that role to earn winning points in both the semifinals and final that week in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
“He’s tough as nails, and he really believes in himself,” Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler said. “But I don’t know that he’d really been on a lot of successful teams, so he was always like, what’s coach talking about with this team stuff? … And all a sudden, they hand him that ACC Championship trophy, and you can ask him, it was like the light went off; this is the coolest thing ever, I won something with people that I live with, that I eat with, that I work out with and do all this stuff with, and so for him, it was like, wow.”
Steelman usually chooses to ride with assistant Devin Stanton at tournaments because he doesn’t like listening to country music, which is what’s often playing in Heppler’s vehicle. But when the team landed at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport the morning after ACCs, Steelman and Heppler were the last ones to finish some interviews, so Steelman had no choice but for Heppler to take him back to campus.
“I remember he’s sitting in the front seat, and he has the trophy in his lap, and he goes, ‘Coach, when do I need to bring this back?’” Heppler said. “I said anytime you want, so we had a student-athlete dinner that night with the whole department, and guess who’s the dude walking in with the trophy over his head?”
Yes, that would be Steelman, Georgia Tech’s anchor man.
“Whenever a little bit of nerves creep in,” Steelman said, “it’s a nice reassuring factor to think about, hey, my guys wanted me on this spot.”
And with an NCAA title on the line this time, Steelman still isn’t losing any votes.
Neither is Castillo, Florida’s answer man.