One of the great quirks of life is how the tiniest thing can set off the most powerful reaction. That’s exactly what happened to Oneda Castillo three-plus decades ago. One moment, she was just living her life, grateful for all she’d been given thus far. The next, she’d found her great passion – and started on a path that would change not only her life but the lives of countless others.
Oneda, who’s the sole sister wedged between two brothers, says she was a total tomboy growing up. She was always athletic and played virtually any sport she could.
“Football, basketball – if you could go outside and play it, I did,” she laughs.
She ran track in school, and always loved math, which she says came easy to her. School in general, however, was not always easy. In fourth grade, young Oneda found herself bussed, with a handful of African American classmates, to an all-white school in the district. But while the move was intended to demonstrate school integration in Cleveland, Oneda and her classmates were taught in a separate classroom and had very little interaction with the white students. This early experience was one of many, but it would play a key part in her later determination to make golf more inclusive and welcoming for all.
Oneda’s parents divorced when she was four, and her mother raised the three kids alone. Eventually, the family moved to Buffalo, New York, where Oneda attended high school. After graduation, she went straight into the workforce.
“I had scholarships,” she says, “but I needed to earn a living. So that’s what I did.”
She soon met and married her husband of more than 45 years, Ron Castillo Sr., and the couple had their son, Ron Jr., when Oneda was 20. For a while, she cared for their son while Ron Sr. finished school and worked. When Ron Jr. got a little older, Oneda went to work for TRW, an Ohio company specializing in computer-controlled machining, which was cutting edge tech in the 70s. The company paid for Oneda to take engineering classes, where she excelled (early fan of math, remember?) and she loved her job. But she always knew it wasn’t where she was meant to be long-term.
“It just wasn’t what I was supposed to do with my life,” she says. “I can’t tell you how I knew that – I was very happy at TRW – but I just knew.”
In 1980, in search of something to spark her passion, Oneda briefly took on a career few can say they’ve tried: she signed up for the National Women’s Football League and played with the Cleveland Brewers.
“I still have the contract,” she says. “The pay was 50 whole dollars a game. Ah, but it was fun!”
Oneda cut the adventure short when she discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s daughter, Bianca.
“She really was our miracle baby,” she says. “We’d had a difficult time conceiving again, and I had miscarried twice, so we were thrilled when she came into the world healthy.”
Still, life at home with a newborn can be draining – especially for someone as used to going and doing as Oneda. One day in 1983, Ron Sr., who enjoyed golfing, suggested Oneda accompany him to the driving range. It would, he suggested, be a great way for both Oneda and Bianca, then two months, to get some fresh air and sun.
That day changed Oneda’s life.
“I still remember that day like it just happened,” Oneda says. “The skies were clear and blue, the temperature was perfect with just a light breeze. I was feeling so thankful to God and so blessed. And then Ron got down near the bottom of his bucket and suggested I try hitting a few and see what I thought. I hit maybe five or six balls, and I caught two of them right on what we call the sweet spot, and they just flew. It felt amazing. That was it. I was hooked.”
By the end of the week, Oneda had signed up for lessons for herself, her husband, and Ron Jr, then 10. Ron Sr. bought the whole family clubs and she had a whole new view on the world.
“I tell people that my life is clearly divided in two parts,” she says. “There’s life before golf and life after golf.”
Once that first round of lessons finished, Oneda realized golf was something they could do as a family – and, in fact, they did. Bianca took lessons as soon as she was old enough and played all the way through Fayette County High School, even going to state! But for Oneda, golf was more than a hobby; it was a passion.
“I kept taking lessons and played whenever I could,” she says. “I went to golf school in Florida, played in the Tri-County league, and in lots of Cleveland-area tournaments. I even won a few.”
She also became the mom who always volunteered to teach kids’ lessons and help out the pros.
“People said I was a great teacher,” she recalls, “but I didn’t really think anything of it. I just thought it was a nice compliment. And I enjoyed doing it because I could see how good it was for the kids, especially the girls. Golf really teaches wonderful life skills: responsibility, dedication, focus, decision-making, confidence, discipline. I liked helping kids develop those things in a fun, healthy way.”
In 1994, Ron Sr. was transferred to Atlanta for work and the family moved to Fayetteville.
“When we got here, it was sort of a fresh start for me,” Oneda says. “For a while I was busy getting settled in the house, getting Bianca into a new school – all that big move stuff you have to do. And then I thought, ‘Okay. Now, what am I going to do with myself?’”
The answer came in the form of a job managing the Better Golf stores at the airport. She’d volunteered for years at the pro shop of her local golf course in Cleveland, and the store’s owner jumped at the chance to bring on her expertise – and to make the shops more welcoming for women. Oneda was thrilled because, as she says “I just loved being around golf.”
She loved it so much that, as she began meeting people, she started volunteering to teach junior classes at area courses. It was something else she had years of experience doing, and something else she absolutely loved. And then, one day, she had a new epiphany.
“I’d been working on the Hook a Kid on Golf program at River’s Edge in Fayetteville,” she recalls. “At the end, the organizer, William Lewis, handed each of the pros a check – and handed me two dozen golf balls. And he looked at me and said, ‘you know, if you become a pro, I can give you a check too.’ I just stood there for the longest time, because it had never crossed my mind. I knew I loved the game. I knew I was good at teaching. But I just felt so blessed to be doing what I loved. It never occurred to me that I could do more with it.”
Once the thought took hold, however, Oneda jumped into the project with her usual gusto and began the process of becoming an LPGA Class A Professional. Over four years, she completed book work through the national schools, passed practical and written tests, worked the required two years as a Class B pro, then passed more written exams and a practical teaching test. Finally, in 2003, she passed her final exam and became only the third African American woman to reach Class A Pro status with the LPGA.
While working through the pro qualification process, Oneda connected with Lajean Gould, who founded the Women in Golf Foundation. The foundation, celebrating its 25th year this April in Callaway Gardens, began by hosting the annual HBCU ladies golf tournament. It soon grew to include a host of programs designed to help young professional women, children, and youths into the game. Oneda’s pet program is the foundation’s summer Golf and Life Skills course. In the morning, kids from seven to seventeen learn golf, and in the afternoon, they work on fitness, nutrition, STEM topics, job skills, etiquette, and more.
“I watched both of my children grow up in golf,” she says. “I saw what they got out of it. And I saw, over the years, how really great this game can be for women young and old. It made me want to share the game with other youth. I never get tired of that.”
“She has a special place in her heart for our teen and tween students,” says Lajean. “She has a great way of being no-nonsense but also loving. She makes them work and holds them accountable, but they know she cares and they really respond to her.”
Oneda also continues to work with Lajean on the annual HBCU tourney, and she plays pro-am with collegiate players and young businesswomen as well.
“Those events are great,” she says, “because we have professional networking in the morning, then an afternoon of golf. You’d be surprised at how many young women have been told by their companies that they need to go learn golf if they want to get anywhere professionally. Golf opens doors for education and can provide opportunities for travel that may not otherwise exist. My students gain another tool to assimilate in corporate America and build their networks.”
For Oneda, opening doors is almost as big a passion as golf itself.
“When I applied for pro qualification, I had to write a letter to the LPGA explaining why I wanted to do it,” she says. “My number one reason was that I wanted to be able to share golf with African American women and youth in my community. One of the things I love about the LPGA is that the thirteen founding members, many of whom I’ve met, never included in their original charter the Caucasian-only clause that appeared in the PGA’s charter. But I was only the third African American woman to become a Class A Pro. Even now, there are maybe 20. This game has not always been welcoming to me. Sometimes, it still isn’t. I can help change that for the girls coming up, and I intend to.”
Oneda also told the pro committee that she wanted to help other women become golf teachers. Once she earned her own pro status, she became a national evaluator. Three years ago, she was asked to become part of the LPGA’s global education team. She now teaches classes both here and in Korea.
“She’s a real ambassador for the game,” says Ron Sr. “She says all she does is golf and teach golf, but she also plays in, organizes, and works lots of charity events, and does a lot of public speaking. She’s always looking for ways to help people and, to her, golf is a tool to do that.”
Most recently, Oneda began assisting disabled veterans by starting an introduction to golf class for them here on the southside.
“There were classes before she got involved,” Ron explains, “but they were all on the north side of the city. She didn’t think they should have to travel so far.”
She’s also working with area courses to help them become accessible to more players.
“It gives me a great sense of accomplishment when I work with the Adaptive Golf community and the PGA Hope veterans,” Oneda says. “Golf should be for everyone who wants to play.”
Over the years, Oneda has garnered awards aplenty. She was named one of the Top 50 Teachers by the LPGA Women’s Golf Magazine in 2017 and Club Fitter of the Year in 2015 by the African American Golfers’ Digest, and was selected as the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Southeast Section Teacher of the Year in 2012. She was inducted into the African American Golfers Hall of Fame in 2014.
In 2015, she received a truly incredible (and well-deserved) honor for her lifetime commitment to building a stronger nation through volunteer service: the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It’s signed by President Barack Obama.
No wonder she feels as though she’s reached her personal goals.
“I feel like I’ve spent my life as I was supposed to,” she says. “That’s just an incredible feeling.”
She’s also managed to play golf on four continents and in all fifty states, something she put on her bucket list long ago.
“I need to go back to South America – I’ve been but didn’t play there – and catch Australia and then I’ll have them all,” she says. “There is no golf on Antarctica. And I am glad because I hate the cold!”
Oneda’s passion and skill certainly draw people to her, but her closest friends say there’s something more, too.
“I think the most incredible thing about Oneda is that she’s universally loved and respected,” says friend Angela Moody, who met Oneda through the Women in Golf Foundation more than a decade ago. “She has this sense of peace, joy, and contentment about her that’s very, very rare. She’s just…good to be around.”
Looking back, both Oneda and her husband are amazed at the career a couple of well-hit golf balls set in motion.
“You know, it’s funny,” recalls Ron. “Long ago, when we were dating, I took her to play putt-putt. She said it was the stupidest game she’d ever played. Now look at her!”
In Oneda’s view, everything happened exactly the way it was supposed to.
“It sounds dramatic, but I truly believe I found my calling that first day on the driving range,” she says. “I found my own sweet spot. And isn’t that really what we’re all looking for?”
Many thanks to Oneda’s home course, Whitewater Creek Country Club and Kathleen Kennard for opening their facilities for our cover shoot.