Big things attract big people. The most challenging situations and monumental moments require the strongest hearts and soundest minds, a willingness to step up to the plate and swing for the fences no matter the consequences. It’s the magnanimity of the individual that prepares them for greatness, setting them up to take advantage of the opportunity to shine.
For Matilda Castren, rookie on the European Solheim Cup team, this big moment in Toledo wasn’t expected. The 26-year-old Finn was merely happy to be playing golf on the LPGA Tour after her debut season last year was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. She hadn’t given making the team much consideration until she won the MEDIHEAL Classic in Northern California in June.
“It wasn't one of my goals because I wasn't a member of the LET,” said Castren. “I didn't think about it too much. Someone mentioned it to me after winning at Lake Merced and I said, ‘well, if it happens, it happens,’ but I didn't really think more about it.”
Only when the Gant Ladies Open was added to her schedule did the lifelong goal seem attainable for Castren. Having even a sniff at a Solheim Cup team is one that every female professional from the United States and Europe dreams of, and with just a few chances in a career to wear the blue and yellow, Matilda decided the risk was worth the potential reward.
“We had a home tournament this year in Finland and it became a big opportunity for me,” Castren said. “I figured I needed to go and play to give myself a chance to achieve this long-time dream and goal of mine. I went and I of course tried to win. But I wasn't going in thinking, ‘I'm going to win this week.’ I just knew I had four tournaments for dual-sanctioned events and I wanted to give myself a chance and see what happened.”
What happened next was almost a Cinderella story, one that couldn’t have been written any better by a Hallmark producer. The hometown hero won by three to become a member of the LET and thus eligible for the Solheim. It was an improbable and career-defining moment for Castren, one that propelled her up the standings and to an eventual captain’s pick from Catriona Matthew.
“I knew I was playing great for a few weeks before that and if I played my best, I could win,” said Castren. “I just kind of let it happen and when it did, it was an incredible feeling to have pulled it off. it may not be my biggest win, but I think it's one of my greatest accomplishments.”
But the road to success isn’t always smooth and Castren has had her fair share of potholes over the course of her short career. After a standout four years as a Florida State Seminole, her first year as a professional in 2018 was particularly challenging. Like so many young players, Castren fell prey to crippling on-course anxiety and struggled with the massive learning curve that comes with turning pro. She missed out on the final stage of qualifying school that year and was unable to finish high enough on the Epson Tour money list to earn limited status for the following season.
2019 was more of the same with nine missed cuts in thirteen starts on the Epson Tour and a T-24 as her highest finish. Despite a lackluster season, Castren managed to secure an LPGA Tour card for 2020 after a T-26 showing at the LPGA Q-Series and has been one of the players that have benefitted most from the Tour’s decision to allow last year’s rookies another season to earn starts.
Lydia Gumm, head coach at the University of Houston and Castren’s former teammate at FSU, always knew her friend was destined for big things despite the early struggles. Gumm has noticed a marked difference in Castren’s demeanor on the course, a calmness that’s helping her play her best golf.
“She had a rough patch her rookie year and straight out of college she was struggling and debating quitting,” said Gumm. It’s so cool to see how good she’s doing now. She’s literally been at the bottom driving all over the country making no money to now being a star and she’s such a deserving person and I’m so happy for her.
“She’s always been super talented. She was an All-American in college and won multiple tournaments, so she’s always had the game. I think one thing that has changed is her mindset. She’s so calm. Watching her play it seems like nothing really phases her. She goes about her business now and I think that’s one reason why she’s been so successful.”
With that calm, cool, and collected attitude that's no doubt a result of the arduous journey to get to this point, Castren knows that the tough times were ultimately worth it. She realizes that without the obstacles that provided valuable learning experiences at the start of her career, she wouldn’t be preparing for the Solheim Cup this week already an LPGA Tour Winner.
“It was a couple of pretty rough years,” Castren said. “I struggled a lot after graduating from college and turning pro, but I always knew what kind of golfer was in me. That kind of kept me going and kept me fighting and wanting to reach my goals and my dreams. I thought last year was the best thing that could have happened to me and my career, having kind of that gap year to just experience what tour life was like and not stress about keeping my card. It showed me that I can compete at the highest level and with the best players in the world.
“I wasn't expecting to win so early in my career, but I kind of always knew it was in me. I knew it was going to happen at some point. I think everyone goes through hard moments at some point in their careers, but those really help you put things into perspective and make you stronger and more grateful for those good moments that you get and help you enjoy golf when it's going great.”