Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches

PGA National (Champion Course)

Sony Open

Meet the player everybody is rooting for at the Sony Open

January 13, 2023

HONOLULU — Michael Castillo has rubbed elbows plenty of times with PGA Tour players. It comes with the territory as head professional at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort, which last week hosted the Sentry Tournament of Champions for the 25th consecutive year.

On Thursday at Waialae Country Club, he shared the fairways with those same players.

You’d be hard pressed to come upon a story with a more fairytale feel than Castillo’s. At age 60 and staving off liver cancer for a second time in five years, Castillo, a member of the most distinguished and accomplished golfing family in Hawaii, made his debut in the Sony Open in Hawaii. One of five children of legendary club professional Ron Castillo, Michael finally got a chance to tee it up in a tour event, a privilege he earned when he won the Aloha Section PGA Championship in September.

Tiring near the round’s end and finishing in twilight, Castillo bogeyed his last four holes and completed a nine-over 79. It pained him to sign for that score, but at the same time he was proud to have had the chance.

“It was a cool day. The golf course is fantastic, as it always is. I hit the ball nicely but didn't score very well. Doesn't really matter,” Castillo said as most of his family waited for him off to the side of the interview area. “I had a great time walking with my brother on the bag. My family is here. It was all good. I couldn't draw it up better than maybe the score.”

The score. Yeah, we’ll get to that. Because to see the score, to make an accounting of numbers, is not to know the score.

“He played so well. He really did. But it’s a PGA Tour-level golf course. It’s a tough set up that doesn’t allow you to get out of position,” said his younger brother Joey, who served as his caddie. “Having said that, whatever he shot, it was going to be great in our eyes.”

The Castillo contingent on hand included brothers Joey, Rick and Ron, Jr., and sister Lori, all of whom are golf professionals. Their mother, Dorothy, 84, soldiered on from the first tee—where Michael was greeted with appreciative shouts and applause—to the last hole played in the gloaming alongside Brent Grant, who grew up in Oahu, and Scott Harrington.

The family patriarch, Ron Sr., 87, who was an assistant at Waialae and then served as the longtime head pro at nearby Hawaii Kai, remained at home, but Michael planned to phone him later Thursday evening. “He’ll want to hear most of all the shots. Most of the good ones. Not so much the bad ones,” he said of his father, who has competed in the Sony Open 10 times. Ron Jr. also has played in the event.

“The great thing about today is that we were together, all of us, and, gosh, that hasn’t happened in a decade or more,” Joey said. “It took a golf tournament to make it happen. In our family? Go figure, right?”

Castillo earned the tournament exemption that goes to the section champion when he birdied his final hole to cap a second consecutive 74, and won by a stroke at Poipu Bay on Kauai, where he once worked. The venue was the enticement to compete in the section championship, given his familiarity with it, even though he knew that the cancer that first showed up five years earlier had returned.

He put off radiation treatment until mid-October, after he competed in the Senior Professional National Championship in New Mexico. On that occasion, Michael accepted a caddie assist from Lori, the most accomplished competitor in the family with three USGA titles to her credit—the 1978 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 1979 and ’80 U.S. Amateur Women’s Public Links.

Mickael is uncomfortable using his illness or his lack of preparation—he did sneak out to hit a few balls during last week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions—as an excuse for his score. The lone highlight came at the par-5 18th, his ninth hole, when he nearly pitched in for eagle from 50 yards. The ball grazed the pin and stopped six feet away. The birdie putt rolled in true, eliciting a shout of “Yeah, baby!” from brother Ron. Michael reacted with a small fist pump. It was tour level quality.

By and large, he didn’t feel out of his element. He is a Castillo, after all.

“I understand the mechanics of a tournament, and I understand what some of the players’ routines are and what they do to prepare and what is expected. But, there is definitely many geek-out moments with some of the best in the world,” said Castillo, who played a practice round Tuesday with former Masters champion Adam Scott. “Even though I'm not a young kid, I still admire the talent that's out here and want to see it and experience it and to talk to them about it. So, it is special in a lot of different ways.”


Michael Castillo played a practice round with Adam Scott on Tuesday at Waialae Country Club.

Forty-five days removed from his last radiation blast, Castillo said his prognosis looks promising, pending more tests and follow-up treatment. A private individual, he’d much rather talk about golf than his illness, but they are intertwined, forces conjoined now in his DNA and define who he is. There is no escaping it.

“Since the cancer journey, I guess perspective to life is a little different for sure, but I've been playing this game for, you know, 50 years,” he said. “It's hard to turn off your instinct of playing the game and what it means to you to play the game and how you play it.”

Of course, he never before had a chance to try to play the game at the tour level. The timing of the opportunity is remarkable, as is the way in which it unfolded. He had long aspired to this moment but nearly resigned himself to accepting it never would come.

Castillo’s story is something even beyond a fairy tale. He didn’t understand that until recently. His journey resonates as a prime example of the resiliency of the human spirit, splashed on a canvas he has known virtually his whole life, and he must acknowledge that he can’t stop at defining his experience solely within the parameters of the game.

“It probably sinks in more of being a fairytale as a unique situation that it's in, and because I'm in front of the camera, in front of you, it becomes, wow, this is more special than when I holed out to win the championship to say I got into the Sony,” Castillo said, embracing the larger picture. “Great, playing in the Sony. But it snowballed into a more important thing.

“My sister who posted some things on social media, she said, ‘You know, you realize that you are influencing people with what you have accomplished through the journey of cancer.’ I said, yeah, you know, I got a call from a person, I haven't called them back, from the East Coast telling me about his story about his wife, and she's cancer free. Someone I've never known called me. ... He's willing to reach out to me to share the experience and the treatments they took to maybe help me.

“It's pretty darn cool.”

Isn’t it, though? And that is the score.