By RANDY YOUNGMAN
Newport Beach – This is the week Esteban Toledo has been looking forward to for a long time, because this is his first full year on the 50-and-over Champions Tour and this is the week the Toshiba Classic makes its annual stop at Newport Beach Country Club.
“I feel like it’s my home golf course,” said Toledo, a longtime Irvine resident who met his future wife, Colleen, when she was a waitress at the club and where he later received an honorary club membership. His family and friends will be out in force this weekend, too, which he says will make it “very, very special” for him.
But Toledo also will be playing with a heavy heart, because his brother, Mario, died last week in San Diego at age 56.
“My brother was supposed to be with me here … the whole week,” Toledo said after a Wednesday pro-am round, pausing to maintain his composure. “It’s tough right now for me. It’s very difficult. … I was real close to him.”
Toledo said his brother had “health problems” but didn’t elaborate. He said his plan was to drive back to his hometown in Mexicali, Mexico, to pay his respects on Thursday and return to Orange County in time for his tee time Friday in the Toshiba Classic’s opening round.
Esteban and Mario were part of a family of 13 – six brothers, five sisters – who lived together in the same dirt-floor shack in a Mexicali barrio. They had no plumbing, no electricity and no running water. But they had each other.
When Esteban was 5, one older brother was murdered and his father died of a heart attack in the same year. That meant there were “only” 11 living in the hut, so he shared his bed with Mario and four other brothers while his five sisters shared another bed.
“My family knows already that I am not going to be there when they bury my brother,” Toledo said. “I explained that to them and they know. They’re 110 percent (in agreement) that I come back to Newport Beach and play…
“All my fans, they already know (too). And it’s going to be OK. I’m handling it really well because (of) the people who care and love me, the people that are with me in the bad times and the good times.
“And I know my (deceased) brother is going to be with me.”
Though Toledo has won only one tournament in more than 400 career PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour events – the 2005 Lake Erie Charity Classic – he believes he has a chance to contend in his backyard, on a course he says he has played more than 100 times over the years. His best score was a 64, but he thinks he can go even lower.
He gave up his membership at NBCC after he moved farther away from Newport and now plays and practices at Tustin Ranch Golf Club under the tutelage of Eric Horve, but Toledo says he knows every inch of the classic, tree-lined layout near the Pacific Ocean.
“I know the course well, the greens and everything,” he said, adding that he recently played three more practice rounds at NBCC.
In his first two Champions events this year, Toledo finished in a tie for 13th at the Allianz Championship and a tie for 36th at the ACE Group Classic, both in Florida. But Toledo is setting his sights much higher this week.
“I play golf to win,” he said. “And winning here would be amazing for everybody. I’ve been waiting for this for so long, because I took two years off to get my game together (for the Champions Tour).”
When Toledo won the Nationwide Tour event in Erie, Pa., he gave the trophy to his son Nicholas. Saturday is daughter Eden’s 14th birthday, so he would love to give her the Toshiba trophy on Sunday.
“I’m going to try,” he said. “I think I can do it … I have all the support from the Newport Beach Country Club and the community here and my family. So what else can I ask for? It’s the perfect time and the perfect place.”
Especially with Mario watching from above.