NAPA, Calif. — The easy road back for Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano would have been to return to the comfort of Spain.
He chose Newburgh, Indiana.
There was another stop in Wichita, Kansas. He made his first trip to Beachwood, Ohio.
This is the travel schedule on the Web.com Tour, looked upon as the primary path for young players to reach the PGA Tour. The average purse is about $625,000, which isn’t even second-place money on the PGA Tour.
It’s not a place Fernandez-Castano, a seven-time winner on the European Tour who once was No. 27 in the world, ever expected to be. The reason he uprooted his wife and three young children in Spain and moved to Miami was to fulfill his goal of playing against the best in the world on the PGA Tour.
Two years later, he lost his card and considered only one option.
He packed his bags, including his ego, and headed off to the minor leagues for the first time in his career.
“It was hard when it happened, but I had to stick to the plan,” he said. “The easiest decision would have been to pack up and go to Europe. My dream was always to play on the PGA Tour, and I couldn’t give up on my dreams. I knew I had to work hard. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. The Web.com is tough. There’s a lot of good players. And things weren’t going my way. But losing my tour card, sticking to the Web.com Tour for a year and getting back here, it feels pretty darn good.
“It’s one of the proudest moments of my golf career.”
He has had more than a few good moments.
A childhood friend of Sergio Garcia, the 36-year-old Spaniard made it through European Tour qualifying in his first attempt and won as a rookie at the KLM Open. He kept winning, each of the next three years, in the Asian Open, Italian Open and British Masters. His world ranking kept rising, giving him access to the majors and the World Golf Championships.
He was at Doral in 2013 when Fernandez-Castano and his wife, Alicia, were invited to dinner one night at Key Biscayne.
“As soon as I drove onto the island I said, ‘If we ever move to the U.S., it’s going to be right here,'” he said.
Two weeks later, Tiger Woods won at Bay Hill to return to No. 1 in the world. Fernandez-Castano tied for third, and with a tie for 10th that summer in the U.S. Open at Merion, he had enough money to get a PGA Tour card. His wife started looking for houses in Key Biscayne.
And then the American dream took a detour.
The Spaniard, so congenial and considerate that he once was referred to as the Steve Stricker of the European Tour, narrowly kept his card his first season. He wasn’t so fortunate the next year.
And that wasn’t even the low point. Earlier this year on the Web.com Tour, he went two months without playing because he couldn’t get in tournaments. He tried Monday qualifying for PGA Tour events, and that didn’t work, either.
The turning point came at his worst moment. He missed qualifying for the Puerto Rico Open in a playoff, and sought help with a sports psychologist.
“The way I was treating myself on the course, the things I was saying to myself on the course, I’d had enough,” Fernandez-Castano said. “I remember thinking on the plane to Miami, this has to change. You get down on yourself. This is a tough game. There’s a lot of time between shots, and a lot of thinking between shots. And when things aren’t going your way, it’s tough.”
That became the norm. Going into the final month, he wasn’t even eligible for the Web.com Tour Finals until a couple of good finishes. In the finals, he started with a tie for 16th and a tie for ninth, and he was on his way.
Fernandez-Castano missed the cut by two shots in his return at the Safeway Open. This was no time to panic. It’s only the start of this second chance. He hopes the rough patch is behind him. His three children — Gonzalo (7), Lola (6) and Alicia (4) — love their new school and new home. And while last year was a grind, he’s had nothing but support from his wife.
“I’m sure she’s had her moments, too,” he said. “It’s tough when you make such a change, moving overseas, leaving your family and friends behind. It hasn’t been easy for any of us. When things are going great, it helps. When you’re on the other side, it’s hard. If she’s ever been down, she never showed it to me.”
He plans to play a full fall schedule, but he won’t fall into the trap of playing so much golf that his mind gets stale. He realizes everyone needs a break. He had a brief one this summer, when the kids stayed in Spain and he took his wife to Pebble Beach between Web.com Tour stops.
“Can you imagine? I’ve never been to Pebble Beach before,” he said. “We just walked around. I didn’t play golf. But let me tell you something, that’s one tournament I’m never going to miss. What an amazing part of the world.”
He has seen more of the world than he intended when he came over to America. All because he wasn’t ready to leave.