For the casual fan, it looks like she came out of nowhere. Matilda Castren finished a shot behind Jin Young Ko on Sunday at the Volunteers of America Classic, shooting four rounds in the 60s and putting pressure on the former world No. 1 right up until the final putt, a 4-footer that Ko had to make to seal the win. But for a misread 2-footer that dove left on the 15th green, Castren might have won the VOA just three weeks after she captured her first win, the Mediheal Championship, in just her 15th LPGA Tour start. As rises go, this one appears to be meteoric.
Then you learn that Castren is 26 years old, which is young by any objective measure, but is also a year older than Jin Young Ko, who has already spent 112 weeks at the top of the Rolex Rankings, four years older than current world No. 1 Nelly Korda, and two years older than Lydia Ko, who has been in our collective consciousness for more than a decade. This leads to an obvious question: Who, exactly, is Matilda Castren?
You tell yourself that it’s not like you could have missed her. For starters, Matilda is not a 21st-century name. It’s like Hazel, Doris, or Mildred, beautiful but of another time. Then there’s her golf swing, as effortless and powerful as a waterfall, simple in its mechanics and as repeatable as a metronome. She looks like a combination of Louis Oosthuizen and Louise Suggs, the kind of single-plane back-and-through that brings tears to the best coaches’ eyes.
You seem taken aback to learn that Castren earned a top-10 in 2020 at the Drive On Championship Reynolds Lake Oconee. She is part of that second-year rookie class that gets a do-over after the fits and starts of the COVID-19 season. Then you hear that she won seven individual collegiate titles at Florida State, a school record, and that she represented Finland three times in the European Ladies Team Championship and twice in the Espirito Santo Trophy. You’re embarrassed that you didn’t know that she holds the Florida State record for low stroke average for a season, especially since FSU produced major champion Karen Stupples, among other stars of the game.
When you hear her speak flawless English with the kind of accent you have to listen hard to find, you’re taken aback. You’ve heard that she is the first player from Finland to win a LPGA Tour event. But it surprises you to learn that she holds dual citizenship, having been born in New York before her parents moved home when Matilda was four. She came back to America at age 18 and has been here ever since, residing now in San Diego.
So, the rise isn’t as out of nowhere as you thought. She spent two winless years on the Symetra Tour after graduating college with a degree in International Affairs. And she finished 26th at LPGA Q-Series in 2019, good enough to earn her card but not the kind of result that would raise a lot of eyebrows.
She also won a Symetra event in 2020, the Mission Inn Resort and Club Championship in Florida.
It’s the kind of early career that could be described as methodical, a gradual upward trend, each year building on the next.
“My first couple years were kind of a struggle on the Symetra Tour,” she says, breaking into a broad and blinding smile. “But I feel like that's why I am where I am right now. I kind of went through a little rough patch, so that helped me put things into perspective and just enjoy golf more and play better, give myself a chance to play well.
“I had a really good amateur and college career and I had a lot of expectations for myself and so did other people. My first couple years as a pro I was not playing that great and then everything kind of went downhill. For a while, I didn't really know how to get out of it. Looking back at that, I'm definitely amazed at how I was able to win a few weeks ago or even get my card.
“When I got my card, I hadn't been playing great, so I was like, ‘Well, I just played great at Q-School and now what's going to happen?’
“Last year was a really nice year to kind of practice out here and see what it's like. I saw that my game is good enough to compete and to finish well here. So, everything has happened very quickly. I've had my dreams and goals and I knew one day that I could be lifting a trophy.
“It just came a little sooner than I thought.”
She came within a whisker of doing it twice in a month, which leaves you asking, ‘How did I miss this rising young star?’
That’s one you have to answer for yourself. But at least you know now. Matilda Castren has always been worth watching. She’s a player you will want to follow for some time to come.