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Mexico native defies odds with PGA Tour success

Jason StahlBy Jason Stahl,

Most people scratch their heads when they try to figure out how someone with a background like Esteban Toledo's could become a regular on the PGA Tour. And they'll probably be scratching their heads until their hair falls out. There's no logical explanation. They'd be better off burning some brain cells on new quantum physics theories.

To Toledo, though, the explanation of how he rose from squalor in Mexico to the riches and fame of the PGA Tour is simple: God.

"When God knows where you're going to go, there's nothing you can do about it," Toledo says. "He has plans for you. He already knows what you're going to do, and he knows when you're going to die. To me, it was meant to be."

Religion and prayer have been part of Toledo's life from the beginning. He was born in Mexicali, Mexico in 1962 in a "choza" or Spanish hut located on, of all places, a golf course. He probably prayed that the rain pouring through the old cardboard roof wouldn't drown him or his 11 brothers and sisters. He probably also prayed that the shadowy men who visited the choza twice to beat up his teenaged brother Daniel for an unknown reason would go away and leave Daniel alone. They did not. After the third visit, Daniel was found drowned in a nearby river.

Memories such as these make it hard for Toledo to keep close ties with his native country. "It was such a tough road in Mexico," he says. "I love the people in Mexicali, but so many people hurt me there it's hard for me sometimes to do more for the people there. Also, I haven't lived in Mexico for 20 years, and when I have a week off, I want to spend it with my family here."

That family is wife, Colleen, son, Nicholas, 13, and daughter, Eden Colleen, 4, located in Irvine, California. Toledo likes nothing more than spending time with them at home to "do the laundry and pull weeds." Naturally, his goal is to give his children everything he never had, but he also wants them to learn not to take things for granted. Nicholas, who Toledo recently bought a year pass to the local driving range, is already following in his father's footsteps.

"The other day, I was at the range getting a lesson from my coach, and Nicholas was hitting the ball so good," Toledo says. "He has a better swing than me and has so much talent. He thinks he can beat me, too."

Most PGA Tour players would like to think so, too, but lately Toledo has been the one beating them. Even though he wasn't won a tournament yet after seven years on Tour, he has finished in the top-125 on the money list the last four seasons. He won the Mexican Open in 2000, and finished second at the 2002 Buick Open after a head-to-head duel with Tiger Woods. He once said if he ever won on Tour, he'd quit, and maybe now that he's 40 years old, he truly would.

"I want to win. I'd like to see the reaction," Toledo says. "Peter Jacobsen, a good friend of mine, once said he wouldn't let me leave the Tour because the Tour needs more stories like mine."

There's no doubt about that. Who else on the PGA Tour can claim to have had a successful professional boxing career? In his late teens, Toledo developed into a good lightweight with a long reach, chalking up a 12-1 record with fights in locations like Tijuana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. His largest payday was $5,000 when he was third on the card at The Showboat in Las Vegas. One wonders what odds the fans that night would have taken that the swarthy guy in the ring was going to become one of the best golfers in the world some day (Esteban's currently ranked 162nd in the Official World Golf Rankings).

It's amazing, then, that this former bruiser could have a soft enough touch to caress a winding 30-foot putt into the hole and show so much gentleness and compassion to underprivileged kids as Ambassador of the Get a Grip Foundation. The objective of the foundation is to introduce golf to children (ages 7-18) at no cost. Along with golf instruction, the program offers education and life skills tutoring.

"I make sure these kids go on the right track and make sure they have dreams. Maybe that's why God sent me here," Toledo says. "I want to make sure these kids have goals. There are so many problems out there, and I think if someone can just share with them some thoughts about what direction to go in, they'll be better off."

The reason Toledo is so dedicated to this mission is that he himself "grew up wild." His father died when he was just five, leaving him with no role model. "No one told me what to do or where to go," he says. "I had no friends to trust. But you just learn from your mistakes and move on."

In 1982, he found the friend he had never had, Jon Minnis, who brought him to California, offered him a place to live and taught him English. Minnis is also the reason Toledo is on the PGA Tour today.

"You need a mentor, and Jon Minnis was mine," Toledo says. "He gave me everything I know. I listened to him about wanting me to go on the PGA Tour. He said, 'If you make it, you need to help your own people.' I always remembered that."

And Toledo has already done things that will make sure his people and the rest of the world will remember him long after his playing days are over.

What's in the bag?

Mizuno Irons, a Taylormade 540 driver with an orange MCC Apache shaft, Taylormade 3 fairway metal, Ben Hogan wedges, Titleist Pro V1 X ball, Titleist glove, Rossa Putter (Daytona) and Footjoy shoes.

Jason Stahl currently works for Medquest Communications in Cleveland, Ohio, as Editorial Manager. Prior to joining Medquest, he spent five years with Advanstar Communications as Managing Editor of Landscape Management, a trade magazine covering the professional landscaping business. He graduated from St. Ignatius High School in 1989 and John Carroll University in 1993.

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