Roberto Castro Advances, Brother Franco First Alternate
By Stan Awtrey
Roberto Castro stood above the ninth green at Hawks Ridge Golf Club and watched his brother, Franco, line up a putt that would have forced a 2-for-1 playoff between the siblings for a spot in next week’s U.S. Open at Chambers Bay.
Franco just missed the 15-footer and settled for first alternate at Monday’s U.S. Open sectional qualifier, while Roberto nabbed one of three available spots. Afterward, the brothers from Alpharetta, Ga., shared a memorable hug.
“I thought he was going to make it,” said Roberto, who qualified for his third U.S. Open. “A friend of mine who’s played a lot of golf said if you play this game long enough you’re going to see everything. You birdie the last four holes to win, you bogey the last four holes to lose. This definitely goes to the top of the list.”
Roberto, the former Georgia Tech All-America selection, posted rounds of 64 and 68 to finish at 12-under 132. Franco, who graduated from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, shot 66-67 to finish alone in fourth place. Both received a kiss from their very nervous mother, Annie, afterward.
“We played out here yesterday with a friend and he said, ‘What if that happened?’” said Roberto, 29. “It’s a cliché commentary thing, but anything can happen out here. You watch enough [PGA] Tour events and you know.”
Layne Williams, the director of competition for the Georgia State Golf Association, encouraged the younger Castro by telling a story of a situation that occurred recently.
“Four years ago at this very spot, Jason Dufner lost a playoff to Russell Henley for the last spot,” Williams said. “But the next day, Dufner found out he was in. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it could happen.”
Regardless of whether Franco gets in the field, his big brother is hopeful that both will be at Chambers Bay for the U.S. Open.
The medalist was Matthew NeSmith, a rising junior at the University of South Carolina, who shot 63-64 for an impressive 17-under 127. The runner-up was Lee McCoy, a rising senior at the University of Georgia, who shot 65-66 and finished four strokes back.
Veteran professional Ryuji Imada shot 68-66 for a total of 134 and is the second alternate.
There was no drama involving NeSmith, whose 63 was the best score posted in the first round. By the time he got around to making an eagle on the seventh hole of his second round, NeSmith’s lead was up to five shots.
“I’m in shock almost. I’m going to the U.S. Open,” NeSmith said.
NeSmith has had an exceptional spring. He won the SEC Championship and helped the Gamecocks reach the NCAA Championships for third consecutive year. Last summer, the North Augusta, S.C., native qualified for the U.S. Amateur Championship at nearby Atlanta Athletic Club and reached match play.
“I’ve been playing well,” said NeSmith. “I love Hawks Ridge. I played it for the first time Sunday and really enjoyed it. My caddie read the greens really well and I was lucky enough to hit some shots where I didn’t have to putt much.”
NeSmith said he hit it inside 10 feet “multiple times.”
“That was fun as all get out,” NeSmith said. “I started well and finished well.”
NeSmith said he was still mentally fatigued from the NCAAs and was physically drained after walking 36 pressure-filled holes on Monday. He was scheduled to play in the Palmetto Amateur in his hometown later this week.
McCoy made four birdies on his final nine holes to finish strong. It will be his first appearance in the U.S. Open. He was co-medalist in the 2014 U.S. Amateur and also reached match play in the 2009 and 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur.
“I’ve won four times in college and I’ve been a first-team All-America,” McCoy said. “This is the highlight of my career. I’m getting to play in the U.S. Open. That’s nuts.”
McCoy completed 36 holes without making a bogey. He had 13 birdies.
“It was easy,” McCoy said. “I didn’t do anything crazy. I didn’t hit it incredible and I missed a couple of putts I could have made, but I didn’t make any mistakes. It was one of those days where hitting it out of play wasn’t even close to a thought and missing greens wasn’t, either.”
McCoy will be competing for the USA in the Palmer Cup June 12-14 in Illinois and is among the leading candidates for a spot on the USA Walker Cup Team, which will take on Great Britain & Ireland in September. While he’s planning to return to Georgia for his senior season, he’s not ruling out the possibility of turning pro after the Walker Cup.
“I’ll be playing as an amateur, but my first professional event is going to be in our nation’s championship,” McCoy said of his upcoming start at Chambers Bay.
None of the three qualifiers have played Chambers Bay. Roberto Castro will be making his first trip to Washington, although he might be able to glean some local knowledge from his younger brother, who played in the 2010 U.S. Amateur at Chambers Bay.
“It’s going to be at an incredible golf course,” McCoy said. “It’s something I’ve never seen before. I’ve never played links golf. It’s going to be a challenge for me and hopefully three days will be enough time for me.”