Castro finds way outside comfort zone

This story appeared in the Atlanta edition of the October ESPN RISE Magazine.

For a while, it looked like Franco Castro's golf career may have peaked when he was 12 years old.

The Alpharetta (Alpharetta, Ga.) senior won a dozen junior tournaments that summer while spending his school vacation living with his grandparents in Texas. Among the players Castro regularly beat up on back then was Houston native Cory Whitsett, who is also now a senior in high school and was the winner of the prestigious U.S. Junior Amateur in 2007.

By 2007, Castro was no longer in Whitsett's league. Inconsistent play doomed many of Castro's rounds as he struggled with his swing.

"To be honest, up until 18 months ago you could say he was a pretty mediocre player," says Castro's swing coach, Chuck Knebels. "No good player was going to be hitting a duck hook into the woods like he was still doing from time to time. He had the talent to be shooting in the 60s, but too many of his rounds were ending up in the 80s."

These days, however, Castro is the state's top-rated senior in the American Junior Golf Association Polo Rankings. He is a two-time winner on the AJGA Tour and was a 2008 Rolex Junior All-American honorable mention selection.

So what turned things around? Castro made a bold decision. He revamped his swing, developing a fade (a slight left-to-right ball path for a righty) he could rely on in pressure situations. Gone was the swing he used to blow away competitors as a youngster, but gone too were the duck hooks (a sharp right-to-left low ball path) and other inconsistencies that were holding him back as junior golf got more serious.

"Over the last two years, I really changed everything up," Castro says. "I tried not to get hung up on it when I struggled, and I never got too high when things would go well."

The positive results were near instantaneous. Castro posted four top 20 finishes in AJGA events in 2008, including a win at the Burgett H. Mooney Jr. Classic in Rome. He fired a blistering 6-under-par 64 in the final round to come from seven shots behind to take the title. It's a round that ranks among the best ever in an AJGA event.

Castro added title No. 2 to his résumé this past April by winning the Aldila Junior Open in Johns Creek. And he did it by going low in the final round again, this time shooting a 4-under-par 66 to come from six shots behind and win by four.

"At this stage, every kid out there Franco is playing against has the ability to win," Knebels says. "It comes down to heart, and he has plenty of it. To win tournaments by coming from behind like that shows he has that unique quality it takes to make it."

His genes don't hurt either. Castro is the nephew of Jenny Lidback, a 15-year touring professional who won the 1995 du Maurier Classic, one of the LPGA's four majors at the time. Lidback retired in 2003 but still hits the links occasionally with Castro to provide some tough competition and valuable advice.

Some of Castro's favorite childhood golf memories are of attending U.S. Opens his aunt played in and hitting balls on the driving range with her after her round was over.

"Getting to walk the course with her during practice rounds and having special access was cool," he says. "Having that experience of growing up around the game helps a lot."

Lidback isn't Castro's only inspirational golfing family member. His two older brothers are both extremely talented as well. The middle brother of the three, Alex, is a junior on the Georgia State golf team. Castro's oldest brother, Roberto, was a four-year All-American at Georgia Tech who is now playing professionally on mini tours across the country.

Though Roberto is away from Alpharetta most of the time, he tries to help his younger brother as much as possible.

"Golf is all about learning from experience, and I try to filter out the bad advice I receive and pass the good info on to him," Roberto says. "I know he can play at the highest levels, and hopefully I can give him a leg up."

Roberto points to two aspects of Franco's game that he believes have him on the path to stardom. The first is his younger brother's composure and willingness to try new things rather than stubbornly sticking with tactics that aren't working.

The second is Franco's ability to catch fire and make birdies. While Roberto thinks he was the more consistent of the two at the same point in their careers, he doesn't necessarily look at that as a disadvantage for Franco. Proving you can make birdies says a lot even if a few too many bogeys are sprinkled in as well.

"To win tournaments you have to be able put some low numbers on the board, and Franco has shown he can do that," Roberto says. "It's fine to put up solid finish after solid finish, but really it's all about winning tournaments and getting that experience of finishing on top. He has shown he knows how to score and win."

After a final season at Alpharetta this coming spring, Castro's next step will be playing at LSU in college. A certain Cory Whitsett has committed to rival SEC program Alabama, so Castro should have ample opportunity at the next level to prove he's back in the same league with the big boys.

Matt Remsberg writes about high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.