But Castrale took a giant step in the right direction when she survived a two-hole playoff to win her first professional title today at the $70,000 Northwest Indiana Futures Golf Classic, presented by Horseshoe Casino Hammond. The Californian held off hot-handed rookie Hye Jung Choi of Seoul, Korea, to win at seven-under-par 209 at The New Innsbrook Country Club.
'It's awesome to finally do it,' said Castrale, 26, of Palm Desert, Calif. 'I've had this fourth-place monkey on my back for a while, so it's a relief that I finally got my first professional win.'
Starting the final round with a two-shot lead over Virada Nirapathpongporn of Bangkok, Thailand, it was Castrale's tournament to win for about half of the final round. At one point, she held a commanding six-shot lead over her closest competitor. But some rocky holes midway through the round, including five bogeys in a six-hole stretch between holes 9-14, changed the final round into Castrale's tournament to lose. The calm long hitter righted herself with birdies on the par-5 12th hole, in which she missed a 10-footer for eagle, and on the par-5 15th, where she missed an eagle putt from 20 feet, which kept her in the game.
'Craig [Castrale, her husband and caddie] kept reminding me that we were still leading,' said Castrale, who played with her maiden name of Nicole Dalkas until her wedding in January. 'I kept trying to make more birdies and get farther ahead, but I hit a couple of loose shots at the wrong time on 13 and 14. We had to fight to keep it going.'
And she had plenty of competition from chasers all day. Choi birdied three of her last four holes to card a 5-under-par 67 and grab a share of the lead. The 20-year-old player carded five birdies in her bogey-free round to force the second playoff in the event's third staging and her own second playoff in six events -- both of which she has come up short.
'She wants to win and she wants to challenge,' said caddie/coach Sam Oh of Choi. 'I feel like she's very close, but she still needs more experience.'
Second-year player Allison Hanna of Portland, Ore., who made her professional debut here in Merrillville one year ago, blistered the course with a 6-under-par 66 in today's final round to climb into a five-way tie for third at 211 with Nirapathpongporn (72), Yvonne Cox (71) of Charleston, W.Va., Seon-Hwa Lee (70) of Chonan, Korea, and Meaghan Francella (68) of Port Chester, N.Y.
'I finished third here last year,' said Hanna, 23, who played collegiately at Ohio State University. 'There are certain courses that set up well for your eye and I feel very comfortable here. This course places a premium on the short game with its narrow fairways and small greens.'
Hanna holed out from the fairway for an eagle-2 on the 338-yard second hole to start her final round, then added five birdies, two bogeys and used 25 putts to move onto the leaderboard. When Castrale squandered her lead to a single shot after her bogey on the 14th hole, Hanna found herself staring at the possibility of joining a playoff.
So did Francella, who used a sponsor's invitation to play in the LPGA's Sybase Classic last week in New York. Riding the high of that experience, Francella came into the week with a healthy dose of confidence. She carded a single bogey and five birdies, including a chip-in from the fringe on the 13th hole.
'Last week gave me a wake-up call,' said Francella, playing in her first full season on the Futures Golf Tour after completing her collegiate career at the University of North Carolina last spring. 'I really wanted to win this week and I felt like I could.'
Nirapathpongporn, who already has one win this season, was in the best position to tie Choi and Castrale coming into the last two holes. Playing in the final pairing with Castrale and Cox, the former Duke University All-American was one shot back after 17 holes. But her approach shot at the 18th rolled into the back rough, leaving a tricky downhill chip. She chipped 7 feet past the hole and missed her par putt coming back.
'You're never out of it until the 18th hole is over,' said Nirapathpongporn, who moved into the No. 1 spot on the Futures Tour money list. 'And if you're in the final group, that means you're in position. Today, I was there, Yvonne was there, Meaghan was there. There wasn't just one player with a chance to win.'
But one player did emerge from the pack that clogged the leaderboard for most of the day. Castrale's length was a plus all week on the 6,196-yard course that featured six par 5s, six par 4s and six par-3 holes. Over 54 holes, she played the par-5s at 9 under par.
In the playoff, Castrale and Choi returned to the 18th tee. Castrale hit a gem of an approach shot into the 18th green, which spun back to 6 feet. Her downhill putt for birdie burned the right edge and rolled 3 feet past, which she made for par. Choi drove the right rough, then hit her approach to 18 feet, which she parred.
The two moved to the adjacent par-four first hole for the second sudden-death playoff hole. Once again, Castrale smoothed her TaylorMade Rescue club off the tee to the middle of the fairway. This time, Choi drove the left rough. The rookie's second shot clipped a tree and kicked into the fairway by about 30 yards. Remarkably calm, she stroked her 9-iron to 3 feet for what looked to be a sure par. But Castrale's 9-iron approach from 130 yards set up the identical 25-foot putt on the first hole that she'd had hours earlier in regulation.
'Craig said, 'Put a good roll on it,' and I did,' said Castrale, who birdied the hole to win the playoff and her first winner's check for $9,800 -- moving her from 10th to fifth on the season money list and making her the sixth different winner in six events.
Castrale's eyes welled up with tears when that putt finally rattled home for her first win. She thought of the two lackluster and injury-marred professional seasons in 2002 and 2003 that she had spent on the LPGA Tour, trying to establish herself as equally adept as she had been during her amateur years at the University of Southern California. Thoughts of three years of injuries, rehabs and restarts flooded her memory. And memories of all the self-questioning and pain had suddenly morphed into that one moment that had served as her carrot while nursing torn rotator cuffs in each shoulder.
'What means the most is simply being able to compete again week after week because I've been sidelined,' said Castrale, whose previous best finish on the Futures Tour has been two fourth places. 'But we have 12 more events. I'll enjoy this, but I have to go back to work on Monday.'