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Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Updated: October 9, 2:38 PM ET
Esteban Toledo spends time giving back

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

A poor Mexican family comes across the border into the United States with dreams of better wages and a better standard of living. Their native country is the most industrialized nation in Latin America, but each family member will earn one-tenth of what a typical American worker makes. Many have made it north illegally -- 6.6 million by some estimates -- and others have been sent for legally by family and friends in mostly southwestern states. The very fortunate ones came here to go to college or were able to get seasonal work visas popular in the golf course industry.

The U.S. is the consumption capital of the world. Everything is here for them, or so the legend goes, including the PGA Tour -- the dreamland inside the dreamland for aspiring Mexican pro golfers.

"Golf is like anything else," said Mexico's Esteban Toledo, who won the 2005 Lake Erie Charity Classic on the Nationwide Tour. "There are a lot of good Mexican players who see golf as a way out to a better life in America."

The starting point for many of these golfers is the first stage of the PGA Tour qualifying tournament, which begins Oct. 18 at golf courses all around the country. If these players can make it through all three stages of Q-school, they can secure their passage into the United States for at least a year through a P1 visa for athletes. For six of the Mexicans in this year's tournament, Toledo is Moses, their guide to the promised land.

Toledo, a 49-year-old journeyman pro from Mexicali, is the embodiment of the immigrant success story. From the time he could remember, he had to do odd jobs to earn his keep in a large family in the poverty stricken section of Mexicali, which borders California. As a 6-year-old, he would use a small canoe to make the short trip across the river from his house to the Mexicali Country Club. He would fish golf balls out of the water and sell them to the club's members. He taught himself how to play the game with a Ram 7-iron he found on the course's fifth hole.

Eventually, after a stint as a boxer, Toledo made his way to the States in his early 20s with the help of a California businessman who sponsored him for U.S. citizenship and paid for him to pursue a pro golf career.

After more than two decades of splitting time between the PGA Tour and Nationwide Tour and amassing close to $4 million in career earnings and that one victory, Toledo has his sights on the much loftier goal of increasing the number of Mexicans on the PGA Tour.

"I'm not going to rest until I get somebody from Mexico on the PGA Tour," said Toledo, who lives in the Los Angeles area.

There have been many players of Mexican descent to play the tour -- Lee Trevino, Robert Gamez, David Berganio and Pat Perez, among others -- but they were born and raised in the U.S. Victor Regalado is the only native Mexican golfer to win on the PGA Tour. The Tijuana product won the 1974 Pleasant Valley Classic and the 1978 Ed McMahon-Jaycees Quad Cities Open. Former world No. 1 Lorena Ochoa was the first Mexican-born player to get a victory on the LPGA Tour.

There are no Mexicans on the PGA Tour this year.

Since 2007, Impulsando el Golf Professional Mexicano, a Mexican non-profit organization, has been holding a charity golf tournament to raise money for Mexican professionals on the LPGA Futures Tour.

Toledo wanted to do something similar for the men. In January, he announced that he would award each of the top six money earners from the Negro Modelo Tour (Mexico's pro circuit) with the $5,000 fee for PGA Tour Qualifying School. To raise the money, he planned a charity event for August at La Hacienda Country Club in Mexico City.

After a tour event in Torreón in August, Toledo hosted a dinner for the top six at a local Brazilian restaurant. He wanted them to have a sendoff to Q-school that was similar to one that Nationwide Tour graduates get on their way to the PGA Tour. He wanted them to have that feeling of making it.

But the money would come with stipulations. The lucky six had to play in the charity tournament in Mexico City, where they were joined by 17 other players off the Negro Modelo Tour and teed it up in groups with three amateurs. Toledo raised $52,000 at the August 22 event. The six players are all entered in first-stage qualifiers that start in mid-October.

"They're young and hungry," Toledo said. "I think they're ready to play on the PGA Tour."

Jose Octavio Gonzalez is one of those players. He partnered with Toledo at the 2006 WGC EMC World Cup in Barbados, where they finished tied for eighth, five shots behind champions Bernhard Langer and Marcel Siem of Germany.

In 2002, Toledo represented Mexico in the World Cup, when it was held in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, at the Vista Vallarta Golf Club. The country had never been the focus of the international golfing community. He finished in a tie for last place with Colombia, but their mere presence was a source of great pride in the country.

A six-time World Cup representative for Mexico, Toledo has always tried to be his country's greatest golf ambassador.

"Mexico needs to be known to the rest of the world. We are leading on the right track so the PGA Mexico will make golf more known," Toledo said during the 2002 World Cup. "We are developing an image, a good image for golf, the improvement of golf in Mexico. So it will be the children who will benefit from the work that we are doing and the image that we are showing."

Jose de Jesus Rodriguez is another one of the lucky six headed to Q-school. The 30-year-old native of Irapuato, Gunajuato, has won twice this year on the Negro Modelo Tour and is the leading money winner on the Canadian Tour.

Toledo, who has played only two events on the Nationwide Tour this year, is himself entered in the second stage of Q-school. Next September, when he turns 50, he will try his hand on the Champions Tour. This year marks his 13th trip to what many consider the most grueling and stressful tournament in the world.

Still, he plans to do more work to promote Mexican pro golfers in this next phase of his playing career. But he has some imposing challenges. While there are more than a 150 golf courses in Mexico, public golf in the country is designated primarily for tourists. The private country clubs are for the middle-class and the rich, leaving the poor with little exposure to the game outside of working as caddies or on maintenance crews.

"I don't think we have public golf courses because the government doesn't believe there is anyone to play them," Toledo said. "We need a body like the Mexican Olympic Committee to get involved. Right now, without the public courses, our best hope is that some of the private courses [begin] to open up to some of the younger players who might have a chance of playing professional golf."

He also said that good young players need the support of middle-class and rich Mexicans and corporations who have the means to sponsor players to compete on the mini tours.

"It's hard for golfers everywhere to find money to pay for tournament entry fees and travel," Toledo said. "But imagine what it's like for people who have nothing?"

This former boxer won't be deterred by the harsh realities of his country.

"I want to help 10 players go to Q-school next year," he said. "The more we're able to send, the better chance we have of landing one or two on the tour. I'm going to keep supporting them if I have to spend my own money. There is going to be a really good Mexican player on the PGA Tour very soon. It's going to happen."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.