In Fat City
It took 12 years, but ex-boxer Esteban Toledo finally has a grip on pro golf's brass ring
My first day at school, a kid beat me up," says Esteban Toledo, pound for pound the toughest pro on the PGA Tour. "I didn't know how to fight. I went to the gym and began to learn how to box."
Such humble beginnings mark the career of Toledo, the golfer, as well. The 36-year-old former fighter, whose four-year career (12 wins, one loss) as a lightweight was TKO'd in 1983 by appendicitis, has weathered more body shots than most during his life in spikes. He tended bar, polished shoes and gathered range balls at the club across the river from his boyhood home in Mexicali, Mexico, so he could play once a week there. He shot in the 100s, simmering over losing to his friends but swallowing enough of his pride to ask them for help. After learning to play enough to turn pro, when he was 23, he weathered 12 straight years of the Tour's Q school, twice missing his card by a shot—once, in '96, when rain canceled the final round.
All of which makes Toledo's current position such a delightful departure. Toledo got his '99 Tour card the easy way, by finishing 93rd on the '98 money list with $327,244. Last month, while would-be Tourists were grinding at Q school, Toledo could worry about other things—like Christmas. He'll walk among the pineapples and coconuts this week at the Sony Open at Honolulu's Waialae Country Club, and while he could be excused for stopping to reflect on one of the most unconventional success stories on Tour, he probably won't give it a thought. He'll be too busy fighting, still wary of the left hook.
"I don't give up for anything," Toledo says. "I never give up. That's why I'm so competitive. I had an anger that all those guys I played with beat me. I started practicing to try to get those guys."
As a boy, Toledo fished balls out of a pond at Mexicali Country Club with his toes and sold them back to the golfers. He found a seven-iron in a ditch and started hitting rocks with it, sometimes sneaking on to play the three holes closest to his house—numbers 3, 5 and 14—with one eye on the horizon lest he get caught. "I hit it out of the bunker with the seven-iron," he says. "I putted with the seven-iron. I did everything with the seven-iron."
Toledo took up boxing later on, while he was working at the club. After the appendicitis, "I just decided I had enough," he says. "I didn't want to get hurt. It wasn't the sport for me to make money." He began to concentrate on golf.
In 1984 John Minnis, a California businessman and a friend of Toledo's family, sponsored Esteban for U.S. citizenship. At that point, says Minnis, Toledo didn't know who Jack Nicklaus was. Two years later, at his first Tour event, the Houston Open, Toledo shot 79-81 and missed the cut by 15 shots. In his first 32 Tour events he missed the cut 20 times, falling back on the Nike tour to pay the bills. "It was difficult to change from a rough sport to a nice sport," he says. "I never thought I was going to be that good in golf. The dedication I got in boxing took me where I am in golf."
Toledo's slow rise reached a zenith at last July's CVS Charity Classic, during which he shot a career-low 64 in the final round to tie for seventh and win $43,650, all but locking up a Tour card for a man who's looking less like an outsider each day.
"When you have something in mind," he says, "a dream that you want to reach, and you work on it and you do it, that's a very, very good feeling."