Bernadette Castro: Golf 'Wakes Up' in Ocala

Most know Marion County, Fla. as  being, “the Horse Capital of the World.” A new dimension was revealed in October when a hidden gem, Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club, was thrust into the spotlight as it hosted the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Golf Championship. One of the fastest-growing championships, the Women’s Mid-Amateur is open to all female amateurs 25 years of age and older. This was the first United States Golf Association (USGA) championship ever to be held in north-central Florida.

“I see no reason why Marion County can’t be known for both horses and golf,” states Bernadette Castro who owns Golden Hills. “The Championship is a step toward giving Ocala a place in the national consciousness as a golf venue

If anyone can turn Ocala into a national golf venue it’s Castro. She’s kind of an expert when it comes to transforming things. You might say it’s in her blood. Her father, Bernard Castro, gained fame for converting sofas into beds by inventing and selling more than 5 million Castro Convertibles. She became famous herself as the little girl who opened the sleeper sofa with the "feather-lift mechanism" in commercials during the early days of television. 

During the Sixties, her father purchased land in an undeveloped area of Florida, called Ocala, where the rolling hills reminded him of his native Italy. In 1963, he had Golden Hills Golf and Turf Club built on his best 500 acres. It featured a stately colonial clubhouse, a junior Olympic-sized swimming pool, and an elegant ballroom. Marion County’s first private country club was born. 
Once deeded to its membership, the club returned to the Castro family in 2002 when Bernadette and her children bought it, partly for sentimental reasons and partly to revive it and restructure the golf course, while preserving property values in the community in which she owns hundreds of acres.

Golf’s Bureaucrat a Visionary
How did a little-known course in Ocala, Fla. get the opportunity to host a national championship? Because of the relationship Castro has with golf’s chief bureaucrat, David B. Fay, who runs the USGA.  Castro, who was the commissioner of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation under Governor George E. Pataki, is credited with helping secure the contract with the USGA to bring the storied U.S. Open, sponsored by the USGA since 1895, to a public course for the first time-Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Farmingdale, NY.

“In ’02, we broke every record. We had more people attend the championship. The USGA sold more tents, more advertising, more merchandise,” explains Castro. “It was just a huge success. I remember the wave taking place by those who were sitting in the bleachers.” Impressive, especially since the city was still in a state of mourning after the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. The event, won by Tiger Woods, was such a success that the USGA returned there this June.

“David Fay is a visionary. He took a leap of faith to have the U.S. Open on the Black Course. It had never been held on a public course, he knew it needed work, but he saw its potential,” recalls Castro, a woman who exudes elegance and charm. “Then Fay comes to Ocala, horse country, and discovers this golf course and takes a chance again based on the fact he knew I would deliver on everything I promised like I did in ‘02.”

And deliver she did. There were more public spectators at this U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Championship than ever before. Over the course of the six-day championship there were close to 4,000 who came to look on. 

Going for It
It took two years of solid work to pull it off. “I treated this like it was an Open,” acknowledges Castro. “The difference was the USGA was not carrying the ball with this one. With the Open, you hand the USGA the keys and they take over. In this case, they handed the club a $25,000 grant and a four-inch thick manual and said, ‘Go for it.’ I knew how challenging it would be.”

One of the first calls she made was to the  “Doctor.” The U.S. Open Doctor, that is. That is the moniker given to Rees Jones, the architect who takes old courses and rebuilds them for major championships. The two were friends as teenagers and were reacquainted in 2002 when Jones was hired to get Bethpage State Park’s Black Course in Farmingdale, NY ready for the U.S. Open. 

Jones traveled to Ocala to check out Golden Hills and was so impressed by the course that not only did he upgrade it, but he also became a financial partner with Castro and her grown children, 41-year-old Terri Keogh, 39-year-old David Austin, 37-year-old Jonathan Austin, and 35-year-old Bernard Austin.

What was the most important element of hosting the six-day championship? Getting the right group of organizers. E.B. Gee, Jr., who has worked and played in many USGA championships, and is a 20-year member of the USGA Senior Amateur Committee, served as co-chair of the championship along with Castro.

In turn, 15 subcommittees were created to attend to virtually every detail of the event — from the transportation committee and the medical committee to the hospitality and evacuation committee, every facet of the championship was structured.

“Certainly the golf course is extremely important,” Castro asserts. “But, it’s also about hospitality. It’s about how we treat the finest female amateur golfers in this country.”

The welcome party, held on the Castro’s 180-acre homestead, across from the  country club, wowed. Held under a tent with seating for 350, there was everything from sushi to barbecue, a band, drinks, and a horse exhibition. Ten different horse breeds including Arabians and thoroughbreds, strutted their stuff and others jumped and entertained with a dressage demonstration. Indoor meetings and events can be held in several rooms in the country club. 

A Team Effort
Planning a championship of this caliber is extremely demanding. Each detail must be specifically coordinated, from food and beverage to signage and volunteers. Castro says she couldn’t have done it without the support of her husband, Dr. Peter Guida, a retired surgeon who worked at New York Presbyterian Hospital. 

The economic impact the championship had on Marion County was approximately one million dollars. Hotels, restaurants, rental car companies were all hopping.

Castro reports she had a $165,000 budget, including a $4,000 grant from the Ocala/Marion County Visitors & Convention Bureau, a $5,000 grant from the Florida State Golf Association, a $25,000 grant from the USGA, and the rest from private donors and sponsors. One noteworthy gift was from Golden Hills member, Paul Hertenstein, who generously supported the championship with $10,000. 

From the beginning, Castro promoted the championship as a community event, and the response was overwhelming. She needed about 350 volunteers which was no problem. “Supporters” of the event (the USGA frowns on the word sponsorship) included local businesses that provided everything from food to vehicles to tents. BagBoy gave a generous donation of 50 automatic push carts so caddies didn’t have to carry bags-a plus on this hilly course.

“Because of the soft economy, those who couldn’t give hard dollars gave valuable assets like use of vehicles, free billboard space,” explains Castro. 

The injection of cash into the community was important as was introducing Ocala to the world, exposure that can lead to future business.

"Plus, this championship put Ocala on the national golf map as a golf destination," Castro says. "The USGA has 900,000 members, and we're getting that national recognition.”  
Marion County embraced the championship, states Maggie Giesenhagen, director of the U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur Golf Championship. “Our players were treated so graciously by the whole area,” says Giesenhagen. “Plus, Bernadette does a first rate job.”

Castro was meticulous in overseeing preparations for the championship and delivered a real, big-league presentation, reports  Rhonda Glenn, USGA manager of communications. “As a native Floridian, I’ve seen a lot of Florida courses and Golden Hills is one of the better ones. A fine, championship layout,” adds Glenn. “The players I talked to loved the course. I live in nearby Summerfield and obviously love this part of the state. It’s so beautiful with the rolling hills and the great oaks. The weather is usually quite good and of course, the people here are very warm.”

Martha Leach, 47, of Hebron, Ky., won the 2009 Women’s Mid-Amateur title on her 22nd attempt. Talk about persistence. 

Now that Castro has proved herself by hosting a successful USGA championship on her course, she hopes to host many more USGA events in the future. As a matter of fact, she recently called Fay to discuss this very matter. 

“When the USGA arrives at your club in force it is a thrill.  There are only 13 championships a year so it is quite an honor to host one,” exudes Castro. “The USGA represents so much about what is good about the sport. They are the keepers of the game. There are so few things left in life that exude tradition and structure and the USGA is one of them.” 

On December 4, Castro is being honored by the Advancement for Commerce, Industry, & Technology (ACIT), a Long Island, N.Y.-based business networking organization, with a lifetime achievement award. “Castro is the best parks commissioner the state has had since Robert Moses,” says Doug Manditch, past president of ACIT and chairman and CEO of Empire National Bank, based in Islandia, NY. “She was such a major influence in upgrading the parks and in bringing the Open to the Black.”

As she talked about her recent success and reminisces about the satisfaction she felt bringing the U.S. Open to Bethpage Black, a public course for the first time, she exclaims,” I wouldn’t mind if Golden Hills became known as ‘The Baby Black.’”