By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
Everybody loves a home game, right?
“I’m really excited about it,” said Esteban Toledo, looking forward to next week’s Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club. “All my friends are going to be there.
“This tournament is very special.”
For a lot of reasons. Toledo is right at home at Newport Beach CC. It’s where he met his wife, Colleen, during his days on the PGA TOUR and it has become, over the years, where his heart is.
Toledo has made a nice start on the Champions Tour this year. He has conditionally exempt status by virtue of finishing seventh at last year’s Qualifying Tournament. He will be eligible to play until two of the five qualifiers ahead of him – Jeff Brehaut and John Riegger – become eligible later this year when they turn 50.
Toledo made his Champions Tour debut last year at Rock Barn. This year, he ventured east again to Florida to tie for 13th at the Allianz Championship and, a week later, posted a T36 at the ACE Group Classic. He is encouraged by the start and there’s no better place to keep it going than a place and a course he knows so well.
“I’m looking forward to playing really well this year,” Toledo said. “Good start in Boca, decent the next week. I’ve been playing pretty good. I’m really excited to play … full throttle.”
Toledo isn’t anxiously looking at the calendar in anticipation of what happens when Brehaut and Riegger become eligible.
“I’m not worried about it because I’m going to play good,” he said. “The whole thing is going to take care of itself. By then, I’ll be in pretty good shape.”
Toledo is a native of Mexicali, Mexico. He turned professional in 1986 and played the PGA TOUR in 1994 and again between 1998 and 2004. It was in 2002 at the Buick Open that Toledo almost pulled off what would have been a career-defining upset victory. At Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, he played alongside Tiger Woods in the final group Sunday. Woods won the tournament but Toledo won the hearts of many in the gallery that week – and a career-best payday of $217,800.
“One of the highlights in my life,” Toledo recalled. “A lot of people were cheering for me that day.”
Toledo is a man who embraces opportunities to make himself and others better. He is the definition of a Good Samaritan, someone who goes out of his way to make things easier for others.
Toledo learned to play golf while working at a driving range in Mexico. The youngest of 11 children, he gravitated early in life to professional boxing and had some success before that potential career expired.
In 2002, his life story was featured on HBO’s “Real Sports” and his charitable contributions are well-documented. He is an ambassador for the To Get a Grip Foundation, which makes golf and education accessible to children. He also is host to the Esteban Toledo PGA TOUR Pro-Am.
In 2007, while riding in a car on a Los Angeles freeway, he rescued two sisters from their wrecked car, which had crashed into a divider after a collision with another automobile and rolled over. For Toledo, there was no hesitation to act.
“For me, it’s because I’ve always been like that,” he said. “Work hard, take care of others. I was brought up like that. I was raised in Northern California by a family who taught me how to be like that … to give back the love.”
A key element to that, he said, is “hanging out with good people.” And that brings his story back to professional golf and, now, to the Champions Tour.
“All the guys on the PGA TOUR and the Champions Tour have motivated me to be like them,” Toledo said. “It’s not because they have millions. It’s because they are so nice to everybody, all the fans. Coming from nothing, it’s not about money for me. It’s about being who I am.”
The influence of golfers like Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson has been a major factor in Toledo’s life philosophy.
“Where I grew up in Mexicali, I used to watch Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson every week on TV,” Toledo said. “I told my friends the day I make it on the PGA TOUR I would like to play with Tom and Ben. I like the way they play, the way Ben putts, the way Watson handles himself – he’s a gentleman and a helluva player.”
Toledo played with Crenshaw on the PGA TOUR at Westchester Country Club in Rye, N.Y. He’s still looking forward to the opportunity to play with Watson somewhere along the iine, even if it’s just a practice round.
“(Watson) is my idol,” Toledo said. “I had a chance to play a practice round with him at the Byron Nelson, back maybe in 2002. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Now on the Champions Tour, I’ve talked to him about it. It’s going to happen. I just don’t know when.”
Or where. But it won’t matter. For Toledo, that will be a round that doesn’t have to be a home game to be special.