First, there was the boredom. It led Derek Castillo to nights putting on his apartment rug, the ubiquitous Netflix keeping him company in the background.
The golf ball would roll back and forth across his rug. Back and forth, forth and back, until even that attempt to sate his golfing jones bored him.
Then, the withdrawals kicked in. The COVID-19 pandemic deprived Castillo not only of his senior season at Cal State Fullerton — where he was en route to putting up one of the program’s greatest seasons — but of his reason for being. For as long as he remembered, Castillo and golf were joined at the psychological hip, conjoined twins that gave him purpose and meaning.
Now, nothing but hours away from his passion stretched indefinitely. Castillo spent the first month-plus of the pandemic adrift — when he wasn’t raging against the gods for taking away his reason for being. When Castillo found out the Titans’ 2020 season was canceled, he first talked to men’s golf coach Jason Drotter, who told him to turn pro. Then, before calling WME Sports agent Davis Holman, he wanted to “punch everything in my hotel room.”
That was, until matters surgically and figuratively removed his conjoined twin.
The surgeons were Castillo and his girlfriend, Victoria Trujillo. The operation wasn’t an easy one, but it helped Castillo.
“I got lazy at the beginning. I was depressed, sad and down. All of it,” Castillo said. “I think this was necessary. I’m a believer in everything happening for a reason. A lot of things came up and I was able to work through them with my girlfriend. It really helped me grow my relationship with her. We spent a lot of time together and growing with her and getting to know her better, getting on each other’s nerves 24/7, I felt like we took a lot of steps in our relationship.
“That was a huge attribution to helping me grow as a person. I realized during this time that golf isn’t everything. It’s not your life. It’s going to be your life, but it’s not your life, if that makes sense. This was a really good time for me to lose my attachment to the game. I needed to understand golf is what I do. It’s not who I am. That’s given me a new appreciation for the game.”
That new appreciation and — better yet — new understanding helped get Castillo through his personal edition of the psychological morass the pandemic inflicted on everyone. The fact his game was in a good place when the world shut down played a part in getting him mentally back on track. The Big West reflected this, naming Castillo its Men’s Golfer of the Month for March, making him the conference’s de facto best golfer for the 2020 season.
This wasn’t a stretch. Castillo won the OC Collegiate Classic at Coto de Caza and the Sacramento State Invitational. He finished top-10 in three other tournaments and finished what season there was with a strong 70.48 scoring average that was trending downward. It’s safe to say Castillo was en route toward becoming one of the program’s best players.
Now, Castillo was professionally adrift. Even when golf courses reopened and he was able to practice, professional tournaments were at a premium. Originally, Castillo planned to go through the Mackenzie Tour’s Qualifying School, the Canadian PGA Tour, and start his professional tour there. But officials canceled Q School and Castillo found himself in professional limbo. There were too many would-be, newly minted professional golfers with no place to ply their trade. No way to make a living.
Once Castillo accepted this instead of blocking it out, he got down to the business of golf business. In June, he found the Golden State Tour’s Sierra Nevada Open in Reno, one of the first mini-tour events returning.
Mini-tour events are tough on fledgling pros, since after ponying up your entry fee, you’re literally playing for your livelihood. But the 15th club in Castillo’s bag has always been the one between his ears. Between his talks with PGA Tour player Ryan Moore when Castillo was at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and his work with Drotter — a golfing Yoda when it comes to the mental game — Castillo is mentally stronger than most of his contemporaries.
In Reno, he chipped off the rust caked on his game, overcame a three-putt bogey on his first hole in his first tournament in four months and made the cut in his first professional event. He learned this sitting in a Reno hotel with Trujillo, who refused to let Castillo look at his phone. Instead, she told Castillo she’d check for him.
“My first check was for $855. I’ll always remember that number,” he said.
From there, Castillo was off and running — to Texas. He spent two weeks playing various events, two Monday qualifiers for the Korn-Ferry Tour (the PGA Tour’s Triple-A developmental circuit) in San Antonio and another mini-tour event in Victoria, Texas, where he missed the cut by a single shot. A five-hole stretch Castillo played in 4-over sealed his fate there.
Next came a LocaliQ Tour event in Alpharetta, Ga. Castillo’s agent secured him a spot in the event, which doubled as Castillo’s first PGA Tour-sanctioned event. The Tour set up the eight-event Local iQ Tour as an impromptu way to give its adrift pros on the Latinoamerica Tour and Mackenzie Tour places to play. Castillo tied for 57th and earned the princely sum of $613.
He didn’t mind a bit.
“I made the cut in my first PGA Tour-sanctioned event, and that was really cool to me,” he said. “At this point, my game was pretty close to where I wanted it to be. When the college season ended, I was firing on all cylinders. My mental game was sharp and I was in tournament mode. Then, having four months off created the longest I’ve ever gone not being on a golf course.”
Tournament mode continued at the Southern California Open earlier this month. For Castillo, it kicked into another gear where everything came together. The previous months of mental and physical grinding cranked out an opening-round 64, a three-round score of 14-under-par and a tie for third. It also cranked out his largest check to date: $5,350.
“I’m grateful to be playing tournaments, and I’m grateful there are tournaments to play again,” he said. “I’m golfing. That’s my job right now. How bad can it really be?”
Did you know…? That Castillo birdied the final hole of the Southern California Open to beat his former Cal State Fullerton teammate, Garrett Boe, by one shot. “I had to birdie the last hole to beat him and I birdied the last hole to beat him. But it was cool to see how much he had grown as a player and a person.”
He said it: Castillo, telling the story of exactly how he turned pro, during the aftermath of the tournament cancellation in Arizona, “We were at dinner that Saturday night and all we could think is ‘How are they going to cancel golf?’ The next day, our coaches are telling us the tournament might not happen. Then, they had a meeting of all the Big West coaches and our coach told us the season was canceled. I called my agent, he emailed me the contract and I turned pro that afternoon.”