…By RANDY YOUNGMAN
Esteban Toledo grew up in poverty in a Mexicali barrio, in a cramped dirt-floor shack without plumbing, electricity or running water. He was the youngest of 11 siblings sharing two beds in the same room, and he remembers getting picked on in school.
Actually, the bullying was worse than that. Esteban had trouble speaking then, so he was different than all of the other kids, which made him an easy target.
“I got beat up almost every day,” Toledo recalled in “Tin Cup Dreams: A Long Shot Makes it on the PGA Tour,” a 2000 book about his life written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael D’Antonio.
“They would get me down and kick me in the head. I was like an animal then, making noises and trying to defend myself. It was pretty bad. … I remember one kid, he told me he was going to beat me up every day, and he did.”
That’s when Mario, one of his older brothers, took him to a gym and taught him how to box. Six weeks later, Esteban was ready to take on the bully and did return the beatings, every day for about a month. After that, he said no one bothered him again.
Boxing changed Esteban’s life, helping him gain confidence and achieve self-worth on his way to becoming such an accomplished bantamweight that he turned pro while still in high school. Complications from an emergency appendectomy ended his promising boxing career, despite a 12-1 pro record, but Esteban soon channeled all his energies into becoming a pro golfer.
All of these memories came flooding back to Esteban in mid-March after he received a phone call informing him that Mario had died at age 56 in San Diego – a few days before they were supposed to spend the week together while Esteban was competing in the Toshiba Classic at Newport Beach Country Club.
Toledo had been looking forward to the event for a long time, because this is his first full year on the 50-and-over Champions Tour and because NBCC is where he met his future wife Colleen and later received an honorary club membership.
After talking it over with his family, Esteban decided to honor Mario’s memory by playing in the tournament. Following Wednesday’s pro-am, he made the three-hour drive to Mexicali to pay his respects at the Thursday viewing and then drove back to his Irvine home late at night with his son Nicholas.
They arrived back in Orange County only a few hours before his opening-round tee time on Friday – the same day Mario was buried.
“It was real tough for me this week, but Mario wanted me to be here, and my family wanted me to play,” Toledo said moments after finishing his final round with a birdie on No. 18 – and punching the air with his trademark celebratory left hook.
“I told Mario when he was in the coffin that I will win it for him. That didn’t happen, but I know that every putt I made and every fan that smiled, it was for him. It was a tough week, but as soon as I got home (to Mexicali), as soon as I saw my brother for the last time, I told my wife it made me feel better.”
“It gave him closure,” said Nicholas, who caddied for his father during the Toshiba, in front of a cheering gallery including wife Colleen, daughter Eden and many friends and NBCC members.
Somehow, despite all that was on his mind, Toledo shot 68-68-68 to tie for sixth place, his best Champions finish to that point. Even he didn’t know how he had the discipline to keep his focus between the ropes.
“It’s still tough for me, but I have to carry on,” he said. “I’m going to play hard for Mario, and I’m going to win.”
Toledo, a devoutly religious man, is a winner no matter where he finishes. He remembers his roots, so he gives back through the Esteban Toledo Family Foundation (estabantoledofamilyfoundation.org), which currently is raising funds for a $200,000 project to build an orphanage/education center in Mexicali. Toledo said he was “really inspired” after recently visiting with a group of 25 orphans (ages 2 to 13), because he wants them to have what he didn’t when he was growing up. (The first major fund-raiser will be a charity tournament at Tustin Ranch Golf Club on Sept. 30.)
Every birdie or eagle putt also means more money for the foundation, so it seemed fitting that Toledo closed with a birdie in Newport Beach, a 10-footer that seemed to stop on the lip before disappearing.
“I don’t know how it went in. Maybe Mario did it for me,” he said, smiling as he looked up at the sky.
Randy Youngman has been writing about golf in California, at the professional and amateur levels, for more than 20 years. He is also an admitted golfaholic.