Oneda Castillo Creating New Narrative for Black Women in Golf

Every person has a defining moment. An event that occurs that changes one’s trajectory, forever altering their course of action, ultimately propelling them down a path they never before imagined they would take. For many, that inciting incident happens in college or early adulthood, challenging beliefs and influencing choices in careers, relationships and self-identities.

For Oneda Castillo, that moment came in her early 30s, not long after her husband first handed her a golf club, getting her hooked on a game that never seemed approachable to the northern Ohio native. And while her experience at the time wasn’t a positive one, it laid the groundwork for what was to come, lighting a fire inside Castillo that’s burned brightly for the last few decades.

“I had my husband, myself and my son signed up for lessons within a couple of days of my first time touching a club,” recalled Castillo. “The gentleman who gave us lessons – I'm being kind because he was not kind to me – as we were in the middle of him giving me a lesson, he said, ‘I don't know why you're trying so hard. You're never going to be a professional.’ At that point, I was a new golfer. I’d only been doing it for about a year or so. And when he said that to me, I paused before I answered because my gut instinct answer was not very nice. But I paused and I said to him, ‘I'm trying hard because I know I can do it better.’

“Sometimes negatives become positives. So, he actually planted the seed in my head about becoming a professional because I wasn't thinking about becoming a professional. And so, it was a sort of a backward influence.”

Raised in Cleveland, Ohio and Buffalo, New York, golf was never on Castillo’s radar. The second of three children with an older and younger brother, she spent her youth playing the sports her siblings did – mostly football, baseball and tennis – games that were easy to just walk outside and pick up. Plus, there wasn’t a golf course near where she lived, making the game even less accessible for the “city kids” in her urban community.

Her first interaction with golf came when her husband invited her along with him to the range to hit some balls just after their second child was born. After he was through with his practice, there were about ten balls left in the bucket and he suggested Oneda try to hit a few to see if she liked it. Unsurprisingly, it was love at first swing for the lifelong competitor.

Castillo was hooked, diving headfirst into the game, signing herself and her kids up for lessons and helping out at the junior clinics her children attended, keen on learning as much as she could about the sport that always seemed out of reach. Golf became her passion, allowing her to get out and do something for herself while also spending time with her family. But Oneda’s newfound hobby would develop into so much more than she could’ve predicted when her engaging instruction style caught the eye of local teaching professionals.

“I really loved (golf) because I had grown up with brothers and played all the sports growing up as a kid, except golf of course,” Castillo said. “And then when I did get introduced to the game, I loved it so much because it gave me the opportunity to go outside and play again, which was something that I did growing up, but once you become a mom and you're an adult, you got a family, got a job. There’s all this stuff going on.

“Bringing my daughter to (junior) clinics, I would be that parent who was there to help, and I enjoyed doing that with the kids. I had several professionals tell me that I was good at teaching with the juniors in particular. We did that at the Metroparks in Cleveland, Ohio, and then when I came to Atlanta, Georgia, I did the same thing volunteering to help with junior clinics. And that's where I worked with William Lewis, a wonderful PGA professional here in Atlanta. He told me that I was good at teaching and that I should join the LPGA.”

With an engineering background and a career already started, pivoting to golf instruction at a time when very few Black people were involved in the game seemed risky. But Castillo saw a massive need for representation in the industry, so she stepped up to the plate and swung for the fences, ready to change the narrative for her Black and female counterparts.

“What I found as an African American woman was that there weren't many of us. And there were times – literally most of the time – when I was the only woman out there or the only Black person out there,” she recalled. “For the most part, the experience was great and welcoming and inviting. But I did have a few tough times out there just because of being Black and being a woman.

“I was encouraged to get involved in golf by a couple of really wonderful professionals as I was volunteering. But the other part that I saw that encouraged me to do it was the need for women and children to see somebody (like them) that could welcome them into the game in a wonderful, respectful way. So that encouraged me to get going.”

And get going she did. Castillo joined the LPGA in 1997, becoming just the third African American to earn Class A status as a teaching professional. While most burgeoning pros choose to hitch their wagon to the PGA of America, Castillo put down roots in women’s golf, quickly making a name for herself in the industry, both for her exceptional instruction and her advocacy for diversity in the game.

“The industry needed to see, the game needed to see the brown face,” said Castillo. “When I came on the LPGA, I was the person that said yes to every single thing because I felt like, in order to encourage people, they needed to see it. It's hard to imagine being something that you've never seen."

“Golf has been known to be very exclusionary. If you go back to the “Caucasian-only clause” that was taken out of the PGA charter in 1961, that spoke to the exclusion and how the exclusion would work. One of the things that influenced me to join (the LPGA) was knowing that the 13 women who founded the LPGA and wrote that original charter refused to put the “Caucasian-only clause” in the charter in 1950. That alone made me feel proud and comfortable to be part of an organization that was thinking that way back then when it was okay for the sport to be exclusionary. They made the decision not to do that. I was really happy to meet many of those founders and personally thank them for making that decision because it mattered to me.”

Castillo currently serves as the Director of Golf for the Women in Golf Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering youth – especially young women – in both golf and life by teaching them to play the game in business and recreational capacities. Most notably, the foundation hosts the Women’s National Collegiate Golf Championship each April, a 3-day national tournament for historically black colleges and universities that includes two days of competition and a professional development day at which the participants tee it up with business executives across all sorts of corporate industries.

 It’s an event that changes lives on and off the golf course and is deserving of more national attention because of the way the Women in Golf Foundation works to develop young people, equipping them for the real world, no matter if they choose to stay in the golf industry or leave it.

“We're in our 27th year and over the years, we have seen it grow. The players are really good now. We have a partnership with the LPGA so that the collegiate girls, if they shoot a certain target score, qualify to join the LPGA in the teaching division. Last year, we were able to send our low medalist to an Epson Tour event. We got an exemption for her to go and play in a professional event. "

“So the growth of it has been wonderful, but what I like about it is seeing the young women who have competed in that tournament over the decades now out in the corporate world. They're doing all kinds of wonderful things. The piece that we do that I think is so wonderful is the developmental piece where we have people come and (the players) spend a half-day with corporate America. There will be women who are great role models and CEOs of companies, and we'll have people come in so that these young women can start to build their networks and develop their own skills so that the next chapter of their life, when they graduate from college, will be even better. It gives them a leg up for what's going to happen for their future.”

Little did that instructor all those years ago know what his harsh words would create. Castillo has played golf in all fifty states – as well as on four continents – and has inspired countless people across the golf industry through her tireless dedication to bringing more women of color and women in general to the game. She’s changed the lives of the youth in her community through her instruction and her commitment to furthering the mission of the Women in Golf Foundation. And she’s made an impact. A palpable, tangible, recognizable impact on golf and its ripples have touched so many around her, in and outside of the sport.

For that reason and for her indefatigable resolve to make the golf world a better place, Oneda Castillo is one of a kind. But it’s because of the work she is doing that we have so many more people just like her willing to step up and make a difference. And that’s an absolute game-changer.