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Golfers look back on year to remember

By - Nov 20, 2016

By Candace Oehler

PHOTOS BY PHYLLIS LERNER and Candace Oehler

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- 

Last isn’t always a bad thing.

Take PGA Champions Tour golfer Esteban Toledo, for example.  The 54-year old Mexicali native was the last player to qualify for the 36-man season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Tournament.  His strong finish at the Dominion Charity Classic moved him up to 36 in the Cup standings, earning him a fourth appearance at the $2,500,000 Tournament, held at Desert Mountain Cochise Course in Scottsdale.   


Pressure to make the field, last-minute travel from Virginia and minimal prep time at Desert Mountain might have daunted a less resilient player.  Admittedly a little fatigued, Toledo nevertheless tied for 10th, his first top-10 finish in the event.  Although he didn’t dominate any statistical category, his knowledge of the tricky Cochise Course greens served him well, especially on the first day when he needed just 25 putts in blustery conditions.


Familiarity with the surroundings and the presence of his family (wife Colleen, daughter Eden, and son Nicholas) helped.


But by the end Sunday, after Paul Goydos claimed the Tournament trophy and Bernhard Langer his fourth Charles Schwab Cup, Toledo was ready to pack up his clubs for a while.


“26 weeks on this Tour is very tiring,” said the four-time Champions Tour winner.  “I need a couple months of vacation!”


He’s definitely earned some quality time off after putting together a consistent season with one victory (Allianz Championship in a playoff), two top-10s and nine top-25s.  Since joining the Champions Tour in 2012, he has earned nearly $4 million, and has surpassed his career PGA Tour winnings.


A vacation to South Africa with a stay at world-famous Kruger National Park will give him time to reflect on the memorable events and dreams realized this year.


The first is one shared by all amateur and professional golfers – to be in the Masters Tournament.  Toledo, who never qualified as a player, lobbied for years to caddie.  Finally, 1988 Masters champion Sandy Lyle “hired” the former caddie and for two glorious days, Toledo lived out his dream of walking Augusta National in the most iconic of golf tournaments.  


He also had the opportunity to play the course this year on two separate occasions, but there was no comparison to actually being in The Masters.


“It was incredible,” he said.  “I’d always dreamed about seeing the people at (the Par 3) 12th. When I walked across the (Ben Hogan) Bridge, I looked back and saw 30,000 fans watching us, wow.  Sandy made my dream come true, and I’m so grateful to him.  It was the biggest highlight of my golf career, and the most wonderful I’ve ever felt as a golfer.”


Another dream, long in the making, is soon to be realized when the Esteban Toledo Family Foundation (http://www.estebantoledofamilyfoundation.org) orphanage opens its doors in Mexicali to 30 children.  When the paperwork is competed this December Toledo, who grew up in harsh poverty as one of 11 children, will finally cut the ribbon and welcome children to a loving and supportive home, where they can pursue and realize their own dreams.


Last isn’t always a bad thing – Part 2


Carlos Franco’s last place finish in the Charles Schwab Cup Tournament (plus-16) does nothing to diminish the outstanding season that got him into the final field of 36 for the first time.  The Paraguayan, in his second year on the Champions Tour, earned his first victory at the Shaw Charity Classic with a season-record low score of minus-18 and carded two top-10s and six top-25s during the season.


The 1999 Rookie of the Year and veteran of two President’s Cups finished the final round Sunday before the last three groups went off.  He played alone (the field was cut to 35 when Tom Lehman withdrew) with his 27-year old son on the bag, and declined a marker (a non-competing golfer when there is an uneven number of players in the field). It was the fastest tournament round he has ever played.  


He attributed the tough three days to a number of factors.


“Fatigue, patience, altitude,” he said.  “It was a lot of things. When it comes right down to it, I just hit it badly and played badly.”


Brutal winds, punishing greens, and lack of course knowledge also contributed to his highest score of the season.


He explained, “The greens are different, they’re really fast.  It’s difficult to read them because they never go the same direction. They’re always going different directions, plus they’re not flat. “


Still, the Asunción native who earned more than $9 million in a 20-year PGA Tour career had a positive take on this year.


“Leaving this tournament aside, it was really a good year.  Winning a tournament and finishing up as one of the top 36, I’m really satisfied with that and proud. Some days you laugh, some days you cry – you just have to find the best way to deal with it.”


Like Toledo, Franco’s road to the highest level of professional golf was unlikely and improbable.  He, too, grew up in poverty, in a family of nine that lived in a one-room house.  His father worked at a course in Asunción where Carlos and his five brothers, all of whom became professional golfers, learned the game.  Breaking into the PGA Tour was not easy and he spent years playing internationally, winning 27 events.


“The road is always long for a guy who wants to play professional golf, especially outside your country. You have to have patience, a lot of hope, and faith in yourself.  I think that’s why I’ve been able to play all over the world, on all the tours, and have been able to win.”


Giving back is also important to Franco who, like his colleague, never forgets his roots and what he overcame.


“What matters in life is the bad times because the easy times come and go, but the difficult times stay with you,” he said.


His charitable efforts in Paraguay include helping to build schools, supporting efforts to care for orphans and helping where needed most. His philanthropic philosophy is simple and powerful.


“It’s not easy to have a better life if you can’t eat or take care of your health,” he said. 


While they continue to help others realize their dreams, Toledo and Franco will work next season on achieving theirs – a Major for Toledo, and a top-10 or -20 ranking for Franco.  


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