The driving range at TPC Twin Cities was noticeably still Tuesday on an overcast afternoon. Esteban Toledo, dressed in a bright shade of rose that made him stand out from the green on which he stood, quietly joked and carried on conversations with those around him, adding a bit of color to an otherwise gray day.
“[Golf] changed my life, but it doesn’t mean it changed my personality,” he said. “I am the kind of guy who wants to have fun. … I’m an entertainer.”
Toledo’s story continues this weekend at the 3M Championship, where he’ll look for his second victory in his short time on the Champions Tour. The golf portion of it began 31 years ago, when he was in the right place at the right time, chasing after balls at the driving range on a Sunday afternoon.
Toledo was a poor 21-year-old, the youngest of 11 siblings growing up in Mexicali, Mexico, when a vacationing couple, Jon and Rita Minnis, offered to help make his dreams come true.
After getting beaten by classmates as a youngster, Toledo’s brother taught him how to defend himself, and soon, Toledo discovered he had talent in the boxing ring. Beginning at 17, Toledo spent four years as a professional boxer, participating in fights in Las Vegas and southern California.
But when complications from an appendectomy ended his career, Toledo turned his attention to the other sport he loved. He worked at a driving range in his hometown, where Toledo — and his golf potential — were spotted by the wealthy Minnises.
Jon Minnis spoke English, a language Toledo didn’t yet understand. Through his wife, who translated Jon’s words into Spanish, Minnis asked Toledo about his dreams.
“I want to play on the PGA Tour like those guys on TV,” Toledo responded.
More than a decade later, through the help of Jon Minnis’ sponsorship, Toledo made his PGA debut. Minnis died in 2003 but Toledo, whose foundation now helps others in Mexico like he was helped years ago, hasn’t forgotten his mentor’s charity. Toledo sees proof of it everywhere he looks.
“He gave me everything he had — money, time and trust,” Toledo said. “Because of them, I’m here. That’s the only reason.”
Toledo took the aid and turned it into a career, which reached its height just three months ago on Cinco de Mayo in the Insperity Championship, when he became the first Mexican to win on the Champions Tour. Toledo said he didn’t know he was in a position to win until his wife approached him after the 16th hole and told him he was tied for the lead.
Just four months before, Toledo promised his dying brother that he would get his first Champions Tour victory before June. With a victory within reach with less than a month to spare, Toledo knew he couldn’t lose.
Later that day in front of a crowd of family and friends, many of whom donned sombreros in honor of the Mexican holiday, Toledo dropped to his knees as opponent Mike Goodes missed a short putt to tie him on a third playoff hole. Toledo’s victory was secured, his promise delivered.
“I felt like I was on top of the world,” Toledo said, recalling that day.
Toledo admits that his fondness for golf never will surpass that of his first love, boxing. But golf is his livelihood, Toledo said, his business. He might not get in the ring anymore, but to many, Toledo is still a fighter.
“He’s a scrapper. He’s a worker,” said Gene Sauers, Toledo’s other playoff opponent in the Insperity Championship. “He’ll be out here for a long time if he keeps his attitude going.”
And that’s exactly what Toledo plans to do. Golf was once his ticket from the place he was raised to the life he enjoys in the United States. Now, on the Champions Tour, he’s found another place to call home.
“That’s my job, to entertain people … and I’m going to keep doing it until they kick me out of this tour,” Toledo said. “We are a family here.”