Insider: Showdown with Woods helped Toledo's focus on Champions Tour

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Esteban Toledo hits a bunker shot during Round 4 of the Buick Open in 2002 at Warwick Hills G&C Club.

The date was August 11, 2002. Venue: the Buick Open at Warwick Hills Golf and Country Club, a favorite golf course among the players on the PGA TOUR.

If ever there was a final round pairing to rival David and Goliath, this was it.

Tiger Woods was on the prowl for another victory. Esteban Toledo was looking for No. 1, or maybe he was looking just to avoid a knockout and finish on his feet.

“I told everybody I was going to play my own game and I did,” Toledo said on that summer day in Michigan. “I enjoyed playing with him. We didn't talk much. I guess it was all business.”

Woods won, of course. But Toledo, who tied for second to match his best PGA TOUR finish, came away with a consolation prize because for somebody like Toledo victory can have more than one shape.

“It was a lot of experience,” Toledo said. “He was playing great. And he made the putts he had to make and I didn't. So I guess I'm happy with the way I played, but I came up to win it, and it didn't happen. Maybe I'll have another chance another day.”

That day came this year on the Champions Tour. In fact, it came twice.

Toledo had a stellar rookie season on the Champions Tour with a pair of victories at the Insperity Championship and the Montreal Championship, both in playoffs. Before and after, there were other chances to win -- he had nine top 10 finishes -- but Toledo isn’t complaining. He’ll take what he has and, just as he promised more than a decade ago, he’ll try to turn it into another experience to build on.

Toledo is a leading candidate for Champions Tour Rookie of the Year. Starting the year with conditional status, he earned full membership and finished 12th on the Money List. It’s an inspiring story, like most things in his life.

Toledo’s emergence began with a near-miss at the new Greater Gwinnett Championship where he faltered down the stretch to lose to Bernhard Langer. After that defeat, Toledo echoed his sentiments from 2002 when he said he would come back from the setback stronger and more determined to finally break through and win.

Two weeks later, Toledo won the Insperity Championship in a playoff over Mike Goodes and Gene Sauers to become the first player from Mexico to win on the Champions Tour. The date: Cinco de Mayo. It was at The Woodlands that Toledo unveiled his unique victory celebration: A left hook.

That’s a product of Toledo’s life and times before golf. He was a boxer.

“I always celebrate with a left hook. That's why they call me The Boxer. I guess the determination that I had in boxing, the discipline that I had in boxing, and the people around me, it's really helped me in my life.”

Toledo quit boxing at 17 and soon afterwards turned to golf, and he has been at it for 30 years. He knows how different the two sports are.

“I’ve always been a tough kid,” he said. “In golf I’ve always been a gentleman. When I jump into the ring, I'm a mean guy because I have to be. In golf, I'm real gentle. I like to have fun with the people.

“I played the TOUR for so long but I never had so much fun as the Champions Tour. I never won on the TOUR. Playing with Tiger, I really learned how to play the game. He beat me, but I learned to be focused in the game. That's how he is. And it really helped me.”