As we enter the season of reflection, a time when we can take a breath and ponder the year that lay behind us, this is the perfect opportunity to look back on the LPGA Tour’s highlights from 2021. In addition to the season being almost back to normal after the off-balance chaos that was the world in 2020, this past year featured a plethora of gritty comebacks, rising stars and breakthrough moments from players the public didn’t know before.
From that latter category, no story presented more of a pleasant surprise than the rise of Matilda Castren.
Earlier this year, a lot of fans were saying “Ma-who?” That’s because, prior to last summer, unless you were an avid follower of women’s college golf, you’d likely never heard of the 26-year-old from Finland. Yes, during four years at Florida State University, she won seven times, which remains a record at a school that produced major champions like Jane Geddes, Karen Stupples and Colleen Walker as well as LPGA Tour veterans like Lisa Walters and Kris Tamulis. But Castren hit a snag after college. She struggled through two years on the Symetra Tour without a win and thought about doing something else. Then in 2020, after finishing T-26 at 2019 Q-Series, Castren eased herself into LPGA Tour life in a year when few were watching.
As silver linings go, the pandemic gave Castren some breathing room. She dipped her toe in the LPGA Tour waters with a limited schedule and then played Symetra Tour events here and there, winning the Mission Inn Resort and Club Championship in Florida, the event nearest her alma mater.
Still, few knew her. Her name harkened to characters in old Disney films. Matilda Castren. Wasn’t she one of those kids who escaped from Witch Mountain? No? Oh, right, she was the youngest girl in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, right?
Those questions would have remained had it not been for a cold, foggy final round outside San Francisco. That Sunday, Castren was one of a slew of players vying for her first win at the Mediheal Championship. With the hangover from the U.S. Women’s Open at Olympic Club the week before lingering like a Pacific marine layer, Castren teed off two shots behind Min Lee and Lauren Kim, none of whom had so much as sniffed a victory. But lurking just a few shots back and a few groups away were players with a lot of trophies, including major champions So Yeon Ryu, Danielle Kang and Hannah Green.
Almost no one paid attention to Matilda, because very few outside her friends on tour knew anything about her. But, quiet and calm, the young woman who was born in New York, raised near Helsinki and lived in San Diego caught the eye of commentators, including Judy Rankin, who thought the golf swing was one of the purest and steadiest she’d seen all year.
Castren put on a ball-striking clinic that day. On a course that demanded precision, she hit 16 greens and needed only 29 putts to shoot a 7-under par 65. And her putting didn’t look that impressive. She just hit it so close that birdies seemed routine. She began with three of them in a row, followed by an eagle at the par-5 fifth. She made another birdie at the ninth and then reeled off eight straight fairway-and-green kind of pars before finishing with a birdie on 18, a reachable par-5 that had been the site of a lot of drama in Mediheal Championships past.
Castren’s 14-under total was a tournament record. She also became the first player from Finland to win on the LPGA Tour.
“It’s been a dream of mine to win since I was a little girl, and to see it happen and just to win, it’s such an amazing feeling," Castren said afterward. “There is nothing that compares to it.”
An LPGA Tour win is always a dream come true. And if the credits had rolled that afternoon in Daly City, everyone would have applauded Matilda Castren and walked away happy. But her 2021 story was far from over. A month after winning in California, Castren was back in Europe with another singular goal. Because she had devoted herself to the LPGA Tour, she hadn’t become a Ladies European Tour member. And with Solheim Cup eligibility on the line, she had to win one of her four LET starts. Second would not do. She needed a victory.
It took just one start to get the job done. In her first event on the LET, the Gant Ladies Open in her home country of Finland, Castren fired a final-round 68 to win by three shots and secure a spot on the European Solheim squad.
Eight weeks later, on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Toledo, Ohio, Castren defeated Lizette Salas 1-up on the 18th hole at the Inverness Club to clinch the Solheim Cup for her European team.
Even Disney couldn’t script an ending like that. It doesn’t get much more storybook.