SNOQUALMIE, Wa. — Esteban Toledo did not take the usual route to the Champions Tour that we’ve become accustomed to, country club roots, college star, longtime PGA member, sustained success.
That’s not his path. In fact, it’s safe to say that no one ever has taken his same journey and likely no one will again.
Toledo was born in a two-room house among a family of 11 in Mexicali, Mexico, a dirt-poor border town, just south of El Centro, Ca. It’s so far off the beaten path, even if you found it you might wish you hadn’t.
“I grew up in the dirt and cucarachas around and bunch of creatures out there, but that’s okay. I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Toledo said. “I think it’s wonderful that I came out of nowhere to be one of the best players in the world because that’s the way I feel. To get to here, I don’t know how I did it to be honest with you, I really don’t.”
Asked if anyone else can compare to his the avenue he came through, he said, “Oh, boy, I don’t know much about — most of these guys are probably all Americans anyway. They have everything, which is great, you know, that’s great. I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
Toledo, a Champions Tour rookie preparing for the Boeing Classic beginning Friday, grew up tough and actually became a boxer.
“I’m very good at it and I would kick anybody’s butt if I had to,” said the otherwise soft-spoken Toledo, “but golf is just awesome and I’m glad I switched to golf because there’s only a few things that are similar.”
He knew nothing about golf living in Mexicali. The first time he picked up a club was when he was about 10 when he found a seven iron on a golf course. He played the next four holes with it and that piqued his interest.
He suddenly found himself inside the ropes in a whole new arena. He also attracted the help of a benefactor, Jon and Rita Minnis, who sponsored him
“Because of him and his wife, I’m here,” he said. “That’s the only people who helped me when I really needed it. I had the talent but I didn’t have the money.”
He adapted well to the game and turned pro in 1986. He never won a tournament and really spent most of his career on the secondary tour. But all his 27 years of grinding did earn him nearly $4 million in prize money. You can live pretty good in Mexicali on $4 million. He still goes back to share a beverage with his friends.
“Well, you know what, I’m still poor in my heart because this is my…material things, they don’t mean anything, money don’t mean anything,” he said. “The person who’s going to change is yourself and I haven’t changed at all. I’m still a guy joking around on the golf course. I tried my best image for really my children because I want them to follow me. Mostly it’s my family, kids, because that’s the image. The fans also.
“But wherever I go, to be honest with you, they treat me awesome. I mean, they asked me the other day, what tournament is the best? I said all of them are the best. They treat us fantastic.”
Besides representing himself and his family on the Champions Tour, he carries one more burden – a country. He said he knows that he is an idol and a symbol for those of Mexican heritage. He gets texts, tweets and messages from his people who are vested in his success. It was like that for Lee Trevino decades ago, although he was from Texas, and, more recently, Lorena Ochoa, a Mexican-born star on the LPGA Tour.
“I have a lot of responsibility because I’m the only guy on the big links but at the same time I prepare myself so someone can follow me, mentor or children to follow me and that’s a good responsibility but at the same time I’m just enjoying myself and maybe that’s the reason I’m playing,” Toledo added. “Another person who played really well on the LPGA was Lorena Ochoa. I think it was wonderful at the same time. But Lorena is real Mexican, Trevino is American-Mexican, so it’s a little different but they’re still Latino.
“To be honest with you, Trevino inspired me to play because he’s a great image, his great love for the game of golf that quite a few people have the image and the fun to play with the fans that I haven’t seen.”
After 289 PGA Tour events, when Toledo joined the Champions Tour he has had almost instant success. He had three top 10 finishes in his first six events then in his seventh event, the Insperity Championship on May 5 – Cinco de Mayo – he won, earning $270,000. That was the biggest paycheck of his career.
His life has been profiled in a segment for HBO’s Real Sports and he was the subject of a on his experiences called “Tin Cup Dreams.”
One day he hopes that he can pay back his community by building a community center and housing project for orphans in the Mexicali area.
“I’m going to write the second book probably next year and I’m going to donate all the money to my foundation, the Esteban Family
foundation,” he added. “That’s what I’m going to do.”
He has achieved his dream. He just wants to help others achieve theirs.