SNOQUALMIE — Esteban Toledo signed his Boeing Classic scorecard — a 3-under-par 69 — and headed off for the practice range.
His caddie, Larry Dittman, explains Toledo’s process.
“He looks at everybody’s scores and says, ‘OK, this guy beat me, this guy beat me … we gotta go practice,’ ” Dittman said.
If it seems a hyper-competitive approach for a Champions Tour event among gentlemen aged 50 and over, it’s the only way Toledo knows how to approach it, and it’s the attitude that got him here.
Tour rookie John Riegger fired an 8-under 64 to grab a three-stroke lead (11-under 133) in the tournament at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge after Saturday’s second round. Tom Lehman, Bernhard Langer, Kirk Triplett (a state native) and Bobby Clampett were tied for second at 8 under.
But there’s not a more inspiring story in the field than Toledo’s, no matter that he’s eight strokes behind the lead heading into Sunday’s final round.
The youngest of 11 children growing up in a two-room, dirt-floor home with no plumbing in Mexicali, Mexico, Toledo found one way to distinguish himself.
With his fists.
Turning to professional prize fighting at 17 years old, he put together a record of 16-1 as a pro before an appendectomy set him on a different path.
He learned golf while working at a driving range, and he made extra money at his local golf course by fishing balls out of a pond and selling them back to the golfers.
He took up the game seriously at the age of 21, and, bankrolled by friends, learned his craft on the Mexican Tour, before finally qualifying for the PGA Tour in 1998.
Asked this week how he reached this stage (14th on the Champions Tour money list with more than $780,000 in earnings this season), Toledo was frank: “I don’t know how I did it, to be honest with you. I really don’t.”
He said he “grew up in the dirt with cucarachas (cockroaches) around.” If the environment made him hungry, boxing made him tough.
“I always believed I was a better boxer than golfer,” he said. “I think the determination that I carry from boxing to golf is huge for me. When I get onto the first tee, it’s like getting into the ring.”
Dittman said he can see it in Toledo’s approach to the game. “He’s a fighter and he never gives up, he’s got so much heart,” he said. “He’s genuinely (a) good guy; he sees somebody who needs some food and instead of giving them money, he’ll go buy them food — maybe even somebody on the roadside.”
He literally helped people in need on a roadside in 2007. On his way to his own charity fundraising golf tournament, Toledo witnessed a violent rollover accident on a Los Angeles freeway. As the story is told, Toledo pulled two women from the car and tended to them until emergency crews arrived.
But what people didn’t know about this episode, Dittman said, was that Toledo showed up at the hospital the next day to follow up on the health of the two women.
A rookie on the Champions Tour, Toledo cashed in big with a title at the Insperity Championship, held at The Woodlands Country Club in The Woodlands, Texas, shooting a 67 on the final round — on Cinco de Mayo — to get into a three-way playoff.
When he won, he fell to his knees, overcome with emotion, because the victory fulfilled a promise he made to his brother, Mario, several months before. Toledo vowed to his elder brother, who would later die of hepatitis, that he would win a Champions title.
Toledo visits his old neighborhood in Mexico at times. He still has interests there, such as the Esteban Toledo Family Foundation, whose mission this year is to build a 4,000-square-foot dormitory facility in Mexicali to provide a home for more than 30 orphans.
“I knew I was nobody,” Toledo said of the way he grew up. “But I had the mentality that some day I’d have the things I didn’t have back then, and now I do, and I like to share it with the kids.”
As his caddie summed it up as he watched Toledo on the range: “We could use more people like Esteban Toledo.”Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org @DaveBoling