The Daily Princetonian caught up with men’s golfer Connor Belcastro to discuss his decision to play golf, off-season training, and his favorite virtual courses this semester.
The Daily Princetonian: So, why golf?
Connor Belcastro: I don’t know if it’s necessarily the first sport I played but somehow, I came into a set of plastic golf clubs, when I was two years old, like the blue Fisher Price ones. And I just spend hours in the backyard with them. It was actually a pretty organic thing, where I just gravitated to it from borderline infancy. I played baseball for a while, I played soccer for a while, those were the other two sports, but there was always something about golf.
I think a lot of it was the fact that I was asthmatic and didn’t have to run in golf; I could actually be pretty good at it. But more so than that, I think that just the mental parts of golf were always really interesting to me. There’s something about just having that time to process information when you’re walking 300 yards down a fairway, and you’re very aware of where you are. And you have to take all these variables into consideration. But also you can’t psych yourself out by the amount of time that you have. I really liked the amount of mental dexterity that was required, where it wasn’t just such a reactive sport, and that I felt like it was a conscious mind game, as much as the physical game, which was really fun and interesting.
DP: What’s the transition from high school golf to college golf like?
Connor: It’s definitely a lot different from other sports, because if you get to a certain level of junior golf, you get to play amateur golf, where it’s just all of the top non-professional golfers in a given area. So, coming into Princeton, I already had plenty of experience competing against college-level competition, so I had seen that level of competition before. I still knew that coming into Princeton as a freshman, I wasn’t quite at the level of some of the elite players and I knew that there was definitely going to be a performance jump.
As a junior, you’re playing for yourself, and you’re playing to get into a school and you’re playing for your own pride. And there’s a lot of pressure that goes into it that way. But it’s a really big jump up when all of a sudden, you’re a freshman, and you have all these older kids who have been working for a long time, who now are relying on you to put up a good number as much as you're relying on them to put up a good number. And I think the transition to being on a team is a lot starker than some other sports where we go from really competing just for yourself to competing for the school on your bag.
DP: How is the Springdale course compared to some of the courses you’ve played on at home?
Connor: Springdale Golf Club is a really interesting golf course, because it’s not very long. We have a team of guys who can hit the ball a pretty long way. For the most part, Springdale ends up playing as a longer course because the landing areas off the tee are relatively wide, and the greens are relatively small. So what ends up happening is on another course, you might be hitting a driver to an area of the fairway and then hitting a longer iron into a bigger green, now you're hitting a shorter iron into a smaller green. So it ends up playing kind of similarly to a longer golf course.
For the kids who don’t hit it as far, if you’re [a] really good iron player, you’re going to be able to score. And if you hit it really far, then you’re going to be able to get it up by the greens and be able to score so it doesn’t really favor one kind of player over another as much as other golf courses might. It is pretty different from a lot of other golf courses we see; most golf courses that we see are anywhere from probably 6,800 to 7,200 yards — Springdale tips out at 6,400. So it’s a much shorter golf course. But it ends up playing relatively similar to some other golf courses.
DP: Do you feel you have a certain strength to your game?
Connor: I feel I hit the ball a lot farther than most people. And I’m a pretty good putter. So that that combination, when it gets hot, is pretty good. It’s definitely tough to take that skill set to the Ivy League level, specifically, because most kids who perform really well at the Ivy League level are naturally very good iron players, and they can just show up to a golf course on any given day and hit a lot of really good iron shots, which requires a lot of practice hours that being a student doesn’t always allow for. But it's been a really fun challenge to try to develop my game into something that requires less time to maintain.
DP: Building off that, what was the most difficult skill in general to develop?
Connor: It varies a lot for everybody. For me, it was iron and wedge play, for others it’s really, really hard to learn how to hit the ball farther. It’s just a really difficult process that can end up messing up your game a lot if you try to chase distance too much. But if there were one thing that I think pretty much every golfer has struggled with at some point, it’s the mental game. All of a sudden, you find yourself in a tournament and you look across the range and there's some guy that you recognize from area leaderboards, or from TV or something, and you just see that guy and you realize all of a sudden, “Wow, I am here and I have to figure out how to compete against that guy.” I think every golfer goes through some sort of mental test. I think that’s the most common skill people have difficulty developing.
DP: Being from Connecticut and now at Princeton, how do you get in off-season training with the Northeast winter?
Connor: So that was that was a big part of my decision-making process when I was trying to determine where I went to school. Princeton has really, really good indoor facilities. There is a simulator in Dillon gym, we have putting facilities in Dillon, [and] we have a net with TrackMan in Dillon. And then at Springdale, we just opened up the new Performance Center, which has three indoor/outdoor hitting bays, and there's now a simulator over there too. So between all of those things, Princeton really does a good job of being able to draw kids who would ordinarily want to go south to be able to play year-round by giving them facilities to be able to work on their game when they are inside.
That being said, nothing inside is going to be perfect. I don’t care how state of the art the equipment is, it’s just always a transition going from inside to outside. If you’re hitting into a net, versus actually seeing the ball fly, those are two very things. If you’re hitting off of actual grass versus a mat, the club interacts with the ground differently. So there are things that do make it challenging to be able to stay in shape over the winter, but one of the really significant reasons I chose Princeton was because they do everything they can to make sure that that hurdle is as easy to clear as it possibly could be.
DP: Why choose Princeton when it comes to golf? Anything else on that?
Connor: Yeah, there were a lot of reasons. One of the really big ones is that [men’s golf head coach Will Green] is an awesome dude. He’s just a great guy. We got along well through a lot of the recruiting process. And that was a big part of it: who I am going to spend four years with, along with where, and the team is awesome, too. I got along really well with the guys that I knew before I came. The guys that I met once I was here were awesome guys. And then I think more than any one particular thing, I wanted to come to Princeton because of the sum of everything. It’s almost not even what they do right, so much as they literally don’t do anything wrong. Being able to walk to practice is huge. Being able to have access to these facilities, even outside of a formal practice setting, is really big. The campus is beautiful. Obviously, the resources. Not too much needs to be said about the resources and the actual education because I feel like that’s pretty clear, but that was a huge factor, too. When I went to Princeton, I didn’t feel like I had to compromise on anything. And so, when I got that offer, I was really, really excited and I took it almost immediately, because it was just everything I was looking for.
DP: And that’s a good feeling to have.
Connor: Oh yeah, for sure.
DP: Through quarantine, have you been able to keep in contact with the team?
Connor: I’ve stayed in touch with everybody on the team just by phone calls and stuff like that. One of the best things about being on this team, and something that I’ve learned during quarantine, is that this group of guys is strong enough where we don't need our sport to hold us together. There are plenty of interactions that we’ve had just over the phone talking about random stuff, where it’s a realization that the bond that we’ve forged goes beyond the golf course. But the fact that we are still this close is just a testament to the kind of guys that are on this team and the way that our team works, where I think that we just have really good chemistry. It’s been a bummer that we haven’t been able to see each other, but it’s been really nice to get golf out of the way and just being able to talk to your guys about non-golf stuff. And I think that I’m really excited to get back just because I know that there isn’t going to be any[thing] lost during this time, that our team is both stronger than our sport and stronger than quarantine.
DP: If I am not mistaken, every member of your team is taking a leave of absence, so you aren’t losing anyone after this year, correct?
Connor: Yeah. The senior class is enormous for a golf team. There are four kids in that class. So when there was all the uncertainty surrounding gap years, we were all really concerned. We had already felt the heartbreak of very suddenly realizing that our two seniors last year had hit their last shots for Princeton golf. We didn’t want that to happen to the juniors as well. They’re an incredibly talented class of golfers and they’re a fantastic class of leaders. And they’re great for team chemistry. And so we’re just so happy to know that we’re going to be able to reunite the entire team.
DP: Yeah, must’ve been tough. That was one of things I was thinking about my last night on campus in the spring, was the fact that seniors weren’t coming back.
Connor: Yeah. Losing the season was really tough. As spring sport athletes, we were preparing for the spring season pretty much all year. And we do play events in the fall. So they did get to hit golf shots in their senior year. But going through the entire off-season, preparing for that spring season, and then not having it come for them. My heart still hurts for those guys, and they handled it as well as anybody could, you know, you hope that nobody would need to handle it. But just the fact that they never got to quite have their proper send-off was heartbreaking. And after seeing that, I think everybody on our team realized that we really wanted to make sure that that wasn’t going to happen to anybody else. And that’s why I think a lot of us chose to take the gap year.
DP: Switching gears a bit, what are you looking at for your concentration?
Connor: For now I'm looking at English. I've taken a lot of English classes. In high school, I was a big English guy, and I was a big sciences guy. Then I very quickly realized that I felt far more comfortable with the Princeton English than Princeton sciences. So, I've taken a bunch of English classes, and I'm pretty certain that that's the route I’m gonna go.
DP: And then what about your favorite class so far?
Connor: Hm, my favorite class at Princeton. It’s so hard for me to pick one class because I feel like I’ve taken a large number of classes, during which I got more out of them than I even expected. It’s really, really difficult to pick one specific class, but I think one of them would be FRS 176: The American Dream: Visions and Subversions in American Literature, taught by Joyce Carol Oates, who, you know, is a National Book Prize winner. So, you know, anytime you get to sit literally five feet from a [rumored] Nobel candidate, it’s a pretty jarring experience. Another one would be FRS 115: What Makes a Meaningful Life — A Search, with Professor Ellen Chances, which was fun. I think that class both taught me that Princeton does value personal well-being as much as just kicking your ass in the classroom, but at the same time there could still be this lightheartedness and fun level within academia. I feel like I could give so many examples of how that class has changed my outlook on what I wanted to do with my Princeton experience. That class for me helped me redefine what success means to me, which I think is a lesson that Princeton actually values a lot in terms of its undergraduates, to help kids figure out not only how to be successful in what they want to do, but also what they want to be successful doing.
DP: Obviously, being at Princeton, being just a regular student takes up a lot of time, let alone being a Division 1 athlete. Do you do anything else, any clubs or activities, in your free time?
Connor: I think that something I really, really enjoyed about, and continue to enjoy about being an athlete, is that I feel like I actually don’t have that much totally free time. Which sounds like it might be a negative to some people, but I love that it’s given me more perspective. I think it helps me live each day with a little bit more intention. And I’m scheduling things, and having so little free time kind of gets me to bed feeling like I’ve accomplished a lot. But within that, I mean, I think that I also learned that if you do schedule your time well, then you actually do have time to do other things. So, I try to stay pretty much as busy as I can when I’m on campus. The club I’m in right now is the Princeton University Rock Ensemble, or PURE, which has been so much fun. Being on a small team is great, but having another group of people that I know on campus is great. So, I’ve really enjoyed doing stuff outside of golf, and school on campus. I’m even now looking to potentially join another club or two. And I think that as much as it takes up a lot of time to be an Ivy League student, and a Division 1 athlete, it also does teach you pretty quickly how to manage it. And feeling like I'm being pushed like that is really fun, and has even opened up more time for me to do stuff outside of just school and golf, which has been fun. But yeah, always happy to give a shoutout to PURE shows.