How three legends inspired Farmers Insurance Open exemption Michael Herrera
8 Min Read
Jason Day, Tiger Woods and NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott helped shape his career
Written by Helen Ross @helen_pgatour
The fans were shoulder-to-shoulder, 10 deep at least, around every hole Tiger Woods played that day in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
Michael Herrera was in the crowd, craning, mainly unsuccessfully, to see the world No. 1. So, after several glimpses, the teenager and his dad Hugo peeled off and found another of Michael’s favorite players, Jason Day, going about his business in a less frenetic setting.
“I'll never forget what he wore,” Herrera says. “He wore the all-white Nike top with the long sleeves and then black pants, black shoes. And I was like, man, this is pretty cool. Got to see him pretty close and personal when he had the red Spider (putter) going.
“I just remember the experience of being out there and how amazing it was.”
Talk about amazing. Fast forward to this week and Herrera is actually teeing it up in the Farmers Insurance Open after he received a sponsor’s exemption earmarked to support Farmers’ ongoing commitment to the Advocates Professional Golf Association to foster diversity and inclusion in the game.
“It means the world to me,” Herrera says as he contemplates making his first PGA TOUR start at Torrey Pines, where he will have family from as far away as Hawaii and an abundance of friends in the gallery.
On Monday, he met Day – a man Herrera admires for his devotion to his family as well as his confidence and game – on the range at Torrey. The 35-year-old Australian spent 15 minutes before his practice round talking with Herrera about what they both were working on, as well as how to handle the pressure this week.
“I heard that you’ve watched me a couple of times play around here,” the two-time Farmers Insurance Open champion said, laughing. “It made me feel extra old.”
“I wasn’t that young,” Herrera, 24, reassured him before watching Day hit some shots on the range.
Curiosity brought Herrera, the son of Guatemalan immigrants, to the game of golf. He lived in Los Angeles until he was 8 and Hugo moved his family to the more affordable Moreno Valley, which is about a 90-minute drive to the east. Every time his family would go to the mall there, they’d pass a nine-hole municipal course called the Cottonwood Golf Center.
“I started asking my dad like, ‘Hey, we should go try this sport,’” Herrera recalls. “At the time, I didn’t know what it was. I just saw flags and people walking around in grass. I'm like, ‘Let's go try that. I don't know what it is.’
“And he told me, you know, ‘We don't play this sport. It's not for us.’”
But Herrera, who was 10 at the time, kept asking. One day, Hugo, determined to make a point, took a U-turn and pulled into Cottonwood’s parking lot.
“He said, ‘You know what, let me show you how much it is and why we don’t play,’” Herrera remembers.
Father and son entered the pro shop. Much to Hugo’s surprise, the fee to play the course, which is made up of eight par 3s and one par 4, was just $5. It cost the same amount to rent clubs.
“So, for less than $20, we went out and played,” Herrera says. “And we had the best time of our life and we fell in love with the game right then and there, and we tried to go back as often as we could after I got off of school. That’s how we picked up the game.”
Herrera’s dad liked the game so much that he bought a set of clubs from Wal-Mart that the two could share. Soon, he got a junior set from U.S. Kids Golf for his son. Herrera – who didn’t have a formal lesson until his second year as a pro – studied YouTube videos to learn the game. His dad also bought the book “How I Play Golf” that Woods collaborated on with the editors of Golf Digest
“I just tried to replicate everything he did,” Herrera says. “Mannerisms, even the way he got mad on the golf course, I tried replicating everything.”
Herrera and his dad eventually found a course closer to their home, but it was $85 to play 18 on the Pete Dye design so playing there regularly wasn’t an option. It had a driving range, though, and for $100 Herrera could get 100 tokens for buckets of balls. After he practiced, Herrera, who likes to listen to R&B to calm himself before he tees off, would head back to Cottonwood to play.
“And every time after school when I got a little older, I’d hit roughly six to eight buckets a day, just non-stop hitting balls,” he recalls. “They were really cool about it. They’d scratch off one from the card and give me three buckets and stuff to help me out.”
As much as he liked golf, though, Herrera’s first love was basketball – just like his dad, who played on the Guatemalan National Team. Herrera, a 6-foot guard, played four years on the varsity at Valley View High School and was recruited by Phil Mathews at Riverside City College.
After Herrera’s freshman year at Riverside, where he also played golf, Mathews introduced him to Ken Bentley, who founded the APGA. The two played a round at Wilshire Country Club and Bentley could see the potential. He told Mathews that Herrera needed to focus on golf.
It wasn’t exactly the news Herrera wanted to hear.
“Knowing that I could play at a high level in basketball, it wasn't an easy pill to swallow,” he says. “… With golf, my career lasts a lot longer. And then I just have a better chance at succeed in life. And I love the game of golf, so it wasn't too hard to do.
“But basketball was my first love, and we all know the first love hurts the most.”
Soon Herrera decided to pursue golf full-time. He turned pro in 2019 and has played predominately on the APGA – winning his second event last year at TPC Scottsdale and posting two other runner-up finishes among his nine top-10s. He advanced to the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour qualifying and has conditional status on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and PGA TOUR Canada.
“It's been amazing to be able to test your game on TPC golf courses and championship golf courses,” Herrera says. “There's nothing like it. .... Without the APGA being able to put us there, I think it would be very hard to be successful in higher levels of golf.”
The APGA has also provided financial support, covering Herrera’s expenses this week, and caps entry fees at its events at $400 where other mini-tours might hit $1,000 or more. Bentley also arranged for Herrera’s first club fitting, getting him a TaylorMade M1 Driver and a set of Srixon Z 756 irons, an experience the young pro calls “game-changing.” The APGA also pays for instructors like his current coach Tony Greco, the director of instruction at Bear Creek Golf Club in Murrieta, California, who also coaches PGA TOUR rookie Brent Grant.
“Just my family background, we wouldn't be able to afford any of that – $200 or $250 fitting fee or $200 for one hour of coaching,” Herrera says. “So to have the APGA put their entry fees at $400 and we're playing TPCs makes it a lot easier to get there and then it doesn't break the bank.
“Honestly, if the APGA wasn't there, I probably wouldn't be playing professional golf anymore. It's just too expensive.”
Herrera has also made connections through the APGA that you can’t put a value on. He was asked to help out at Cedric the Entertainer’s charity event, hitting drives on one of the par 5s. Ronnie Lott, the former San Francisco 49er and NFL Hall of Famer, was in one of those groups. Soon, Herrera had his first sponsor, proudly wearing the logo of Lott’s Toyota dealership on his sleeve. Lott also connected him with his agent, Sandy Sandoval, who has secured three more sponsors for Herrera.
“He asked me about my story, the 10 minutes I had with him on the tee box,” Herrera says of Lott, who he has only seen play football on YouTube. “We really connected, and he wanted to help me out. … It’s great. Because he knows what it takes to be great at a high level, whatever your craft is.
“So, for him to see that in me and to believe in me, it's been life-changing.”
Herrera would like to change lives, as well. His dream is to own Cottonwood Golf Center so he can make sure other Latinos and minorities have a place to learn and enjoy the game. He’d make it free for anyone under 18 and keep that $5 price tag so the game remains welcoming for their parents.
And what if his dad had never made that U-turn?
“My life would be completely different,” Herrera says. “I don’t know what it would look like. But I’m extremely grateful for the game of golf.”