Finland’s Matilda Castren makes LPGA history with win at Lake Merced

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SAN FRANCISCO — As the final group stood on the first tee at Lake Merced Golf Club on Sunday, the last rays of sunshine beaming ahead of their biggest round of their lives, Matilda Castren, Min Lee and Lauren Kim combined for just one top-10 finish in 146 career starts. Thirteen players outside of the 2:10 p.m. tee time lurked within five of the lead if the inexperienced group faltered.

Castren held that the lone top-10 from the 2020 Drive On Championship at Reynolds Lake Oconee, her best showing in 15 career LPGA Tour starts. The 26-year-old from Finland started the final round of the LPGA Mediheal Championship two off the lead and stepped aside before teeing off to fist bump friend Bianca Pagdanganan, sharing a laugh and well wishes before venturing into the mist at Lake Merced.

The motivational words fueled Castren to push through the fog with a final-round 65 to win the LPGA Mediheal Championship at a tournament record 14-under par, becoming the first Finnish woman to win on the LPGA.

“It’s been a dream of mine to win since I was a little girl, and to see it happen and just to win, it’s such an amazing feeling,” Castren said. “There is nothing that compares to it.”

Castren put on a shot-making clinic to start Sunday. Her longest look for birdie over the opening five holes was 10 feet on the fourth, which grazed the left side of the cup to miss. She subsequently punched home a four-footer for eagle on the fifth to sit at five-under through her first five holes. Lee and Kim chatted to the side in awe of Castren’s play, with Lee motioning how short of a look Castren had on every hole.

“After a couple holes, I knew that was her day,” Lee said. “She was hitting the ball very solid. The only thing I can do is play better than her.”

Castren polished off the front nine at six under with a birdie on the ninth. Lee closed the gap to one with a birdie on the 15th but gave it back with a three-putt on the par-3 17th, the first bogey between the two all day.

The Finnish woman punctuated her historic moment for her homeland, which she will be representing in Tokyo in early August, with a birdie on the last,

“It’s a dream come true to go to the Olympics and represent your country,” Castren said. “And now this [win]. It’s a lot to take in.”

Her caddie, John Rawlings, knows that she showed her game’s potential over the opening five holes Sunday once she takes it all in. “I think this is going to be the start of a lot of good things for her,” Rawlings said. “We qualified for the U.S. Open, finished 30th there, win here. Going to the Olympics, I think this will open a large number of doors for her.”

The victory also presents the 158th player in the Rolex Rankings a door to use her International Affairs degree at Inverness Club in September, giving team Europe Captain Catriona Matthew the option to add another LPGA winner to her Solheim Cup roster.

“I guess this changes things,” Castren said. “It would be another dream come true, on my bucket list. It’s definitely one of my goals in my career. It would just mean the world to me.”

The blue and yellow of Team Europe followed Castren’s lead of solid play at Lake Merced. Celine Boutier charged up the leader board Sunday with a tournament record bogey-free 64 to post T-5. Potential Solheim rookie Leona Maguire and three-time veteran Jodi Ewart Shadoff finished T-9.

After Castren hoisted the trophy as the San Francisco fog enveloped Lake Merced, she imparted her wishes for the future of golf in her home country. “I hope I’m the first [winner] of many,” Castren said. “I hope the girls in Finland want to come out here to play.”

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