U.S. GIRLS' JUNIOR
From Russia With Golf July 15, 2012 | Daly City, Calif. By David Shefter, USGA

Klara Castillo came to the U.S. from Russia when she was adopted as a nine-month-old toddler by Diane Castillo. (Steve Gibbons/USGA)

Hitting balls on the Lake Merced Golf Club practice range on Sunday, Klara Castillo looks like many of the 156 competitors gathered for the 64th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.

Headphones drape down from both ears as she rhythmically executes different shots into the heavy Bay Area air. A ponytail drapes off from behind her golf cap. She smiles incessantly while engaging in small conversation with her local caddie, Tobias Larson, between shots.

The perfect portrait of the All-American girl, right?

Except upon closer examination something is distinctly different with Castillo. It’s not physical. The dark eyes or facial features don’t give it away. You have to dig much further. The answers can be found a half a world away from the serenity of Lake Merced in a small Russian town just north of the Kazakhstan border.

Sixteen years ago, a 19-year-old unwed student gave birth to a girl in Troitsk, a town 109 miles east of the southern Ural Mountains and 69 miles from Chelyabinsk. The child was immediately put up for adoption, which is where Diane Castillo enters the picture. Castillo and her partner had been looking to adopt through an agency called Rainbow House International, which had an office in New Mexico. Hoping to land a Hispanic child, they first looked at Ecuador, but the process was proving to be painstakingly slow.

When one of the adoption counselors suggested a Russian child, Castillo changed her thinking and flew to Russia with her sister, who is married to Notah Begay Jr., the father of PGA Tour golfer Notah Begay III. The odyssey began with a transatlantic flight to Moscow, then another flight to Chelyabinsk and a two-hour drive to Troitsk. Videos and photos had previously been given to Castillo, but the minute she laid eyes on 9-month-old Klara, a bond was formed.

"We didn’t meet with the [biological] parents," said Diane Castillo, adding that if any family members had been in contact with them, the adoption would have been nullified. "They had already named her Klara. It was very cool. My sister’s name is Claire, so she fit right into the family."

To this day, Klara, who resides in Albuquerque, N.M., has never met either of her biological parents and she knows very little about her homeland. Her adopted family, which includes cousin Notah Begay III, is in the United States. To Klara, she is American through and through.

"I’m curious to see the differences [in cultures]," said Klara. "I’ve seen pictures of the adoption agency and all that. [But] I have a lot more opportunities here, so I am really happy [to be in the U.S.]."

The golf part came eight years ago. Klara had been involved in other sports like basketball, soccer and karate. She even had interest in playing the piano and swimming, but Diane wanted her active daughter to slow down.

Diane never thought golf would become a passion because of its difficulty. But once Notah Begay Jr. introduced the game to Klara, she became hooked. Another cousin, Richard Rohl, also took up the game about the same time.

Klara attended the camps conducted by Notah Begay III’s foundation. She was the only non-Native American, but she fit right in. Gradually her game began to improve under Begay Jr.’s tutelage as she constantly practiced at Ladera Golf Course, a public facility in Albuquerque.

"Notah has always been a great inspiration to me," said Klara of her well-known cousin who played at Stanford University and led the Cardinal to the 1994 NCAA Division I championship and is one of the few Native-Americans to play on the PGA Tour. Begay also was a member of the 1995 USA Walker Cup Team.

Klara often talks to NBIII – as he is often referred to – when he comes home during the holidays. He now lives in Dallas with his family, so Klara doesn’t see him regularly. She and her mother were unaware that Begay advanced to the quarterfinals of the 1990 U.S. Junior Amateur when it was conducted here at Lake Merced Golf Club. He was eventually eliminated by his future Stanford teammate and 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, 3 and 2.

"Really! At this course?" said Diane when told of Begay’s performance at that Junior Amateur.

Klara’s golf game has taken off in 2012. While she has done well in local and regional events, this year Klara qualified for three national competitions: the Junior Worlds (held last week at Torrey Pines’ North Course), the U.S. Girls’ Junior and next week’s Optimist International in Florida. She struggled last week at Junior Worlds, shooting 86-82-82 to miss the cut for the final round on the 6,227-yard North Course at Torrey Pines.

"I’m used to a little shorter courses," said Castillo. "Also the greens were really fast. I am used to slower greens."

Things won’t get any easier at Lake Merced. The course has been set up at 6,291 yards (par 72) with green speeds expected at 12-feet-plus on the Stimpmeter. But Castillo, who opened stroke-play qualifying with a disappointing 91, isn’t going in with any delusions of grandeur, either. This is a chance to continue improving as a player against a stellar field that includes seven players ranked among the top 50 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, including world No. 1 Lydia Ko and defending Girls’ Junior champion Ariya Jutanugarn (world No. 3).

Notah Jr. told Klara to block all the periphery intangibles out.

"He just told me to play my game and not worry about everyone else," said Klara, a rising high school junior at Sandia Prep, where she carries a 3.8 grade-point average and is also an all-state choir singer. "I just want to come out and do my best. I hope to qualify for match play. I love playing match play."

She also hopes to someday visit her native Russia and possibly meet her biological parents. Sometimes Klara wonders what might have been if her parents had not given her up for adoption. What would she be doing? Would she be playing another sport? What would her life be like?

Those are questions she can’t answer. Diane Castillo said a trip is planned when Klara turns 18. All she knows is she’s half Russian and half Cossack.

"She’s got that ethnic look to her," says Diane. "Sometimes they think she is Native-American. Sometimes they think she’s Hispanic."

Wanting to research Klara’s heritage a bit further, Diane discovered 11 cultures that speak the Athabaskan language. Navajos – the heritage of Begay – are one. Cossacks are also on that list. Perhaps a few Cossacks, Diane professes, crossed the Bering Strait and emigrated from Russia to the U.S.

"It’s quite fascinating," she said. "Maybe there are connections there."

Someday, Klara just might find that out.

David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.