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On golf's fringes, Toledo plods on

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

The other side of the game that Tiger has taken over isn't all about big leather golf bags, green jackets and car company endorsements.

Meet Esteban Toledo, pro golfer since 1986, grinder extraordinaire.

His game plan is simple _ play every week, cash some paychecks and make enough money to stay in the big leagues. If Toledo wins in the process, that's great, too. If it happens, Toledo says he'll quit, go home and open a driving range.

But this weekend Toledo is not thinking so much about finishing first.

He's just trying to hang on.

Toledo, 41, is ranked 123rd on the PGA Tour's money list coming into the Chrysler Championship, the tour's final full-field event, held at the Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort. At the end of the year, the top 125 get invited back to the tour next year.

So after nearly 10,000 golf shots in 2003, and at least that many miles on the road, Toledo's future is written here. It's simple, really:

Play decent, he keeps his job.

Play lousy, he packs his bags.

Just the thought of failure is enough to unnerve most any golfer. Add in bronchitis and a disqualification last week, and Toledo has reason to sweat.

But not him. A former professional boxer who has been knocked down so many times in life, Toledo only knows how to get up.

"It's no big deal," he said, taking a break from working on his putting. "Things could be a lot worse."

And at times, they have been.

Toledo grew up on a golf course in Mexicali, Mexico, about 100 miles east of Tijuana. He was the youngest of 11 children who lived in a home without electricity or running water. As a boy, he swam across a canal that bordered the course, found golf balls from the water hazard and sold them to members.

When he was 4, one of his teenage brothers was slain and left in the same canal. Toledo found the body.

A year later, his father died suddenly from a heart attack.

Later, Toledo found his outlet in boxing, not golf. In high school, he turned professional, compiling a 12-1 record before acute appendicitis stopped him from fighting altogether. It was the biggest blow yet, Toledo said. The sport had become his life.

Still, some 25 years later, he would love to get back in the ring.

"I wish I can go back to boxing," said Toledo, signing an autograph while a fan jokingly puts up his fists. Later, he'd sign a boxing glove a spectator brought. "Because in boxing, it's one-on-one . . . there's only one winner. And I always want it to be me."

That's when Toledo, at 17 and with his hopes crushed, got serious about golf. He played in tournaments in Mexico to marginal success, but no one gave him a shot until a California philanthropist offered to pay his way to America.

Toledo moved in 1982, learned English and then turned pro.

Wednesday, as he helped present a $5,000 check to a local after-school program, Toledo said he knows firsthand that the support is crucial.

"I've been there," said Toledo, who displays his native country's colors on his putter. "I know how much a gift like that means to these kids."

Toledo had his moments since he started on the PGA Tour in earnest in 1998. He finished tied for second _ behind you-know-who _ at last year's Buick Open. He has a couple of third-place finishes and even won a tournament in his native Mexico.

But mostly Toledo avoids the crowds common to the game's stars. He shows up every week, plays until officials tell him he can't, and moves on to the next stop. This year, he's played in 35 tournaments and hasn't spent more than a week at his Irvine, Calif., home since January.

"I play 35 events a year not because I want to make money," Toledo said. "I come to support the tour and all of the great people that I've met in every city that we play."

During his first round Thursday morning, half a dozen spectators trolled the fairways, following Toledo's group.

There wasn't much for them to cheer about.

Toledo missed nine out of 13 fairways and made two birdies, both on par-3's, compared to six bogeys. He finished 4-over par, 75, well back in the pack. Along with battling rough deeper than most stops on the PGA Tour, Toledo struggled with a cough brought on by bronchitis.

He's been taking antibiotics all week, and he felt very weak after the round.

"I have to play, I have no choice," said Toledo, who went to sleep at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to prepare for his Thursday morning tee time. "If I could stay home, I would. I'm sick as a dog.

"My head's not here right now."

While his playing partners threw clubs and swatted the grass to show their displeasure _ Todd Fischer even broke his putter at one point _ Toledo was stoic. He just kept plodding along, hoping something good will happen.

It never really did.

Friday, Toledo birdied one of the course's hardest holes and then knocked an iron to within 2 feet of the course's final hole, but a 2-over par 73 wasn't good enough to earn a spot in the weekend's final field.

This week, he won't get paid.

To make matters worse, Jose Coceres, No. 160 on the money list, was in second place at the start of today's round. Glen Hnatiuk, Mark Wilson, and Olin Browne _ who rank No. 130, 131 and 132, respectively, on the money list _ all made the cut and will earn a paycheck this week.

If those three golfers make more than $20,000 this week, which means finishing around 30th, Toledo will lose his job. If Coceres stays in second, it would only take two out of three. Sadly for Toledo, there are countless other ways he can wind up unemployed. It all depends on who finishes where.

As it stands, Toledo's No. 123 on the PGA Tour's money list, netting $487,495 so far this year. That's a fine living for most anyone, but for pro golfers, it's hardly worth a tip of the cap. Vijay Singh, the tour's money leader who is playing here this week, has already banked nearly $7-million in winnings.

Last week at the tour's stop in Orlando, Toledo lost more than $8,000 in potential winnings when he was disqualified for taking an illegal drop. Toledo, who insists he did nothing wrong, knows that $8,000 could mean the difference between staying and going.

Pat Perez, who played with Toledo Thursday and shot one of the morning's lower rounds, 1-under par 70, said players can't worry about next year while they are on the course. Perez, who's ranked No. 122, and shot another 70 Friday, said there's too much that can happen.

"You could have four guys around 150th play real well and move right past you," Perez said. "You can't watch all. You just got to play. It's not like I'm happy if I finish 124. I don't say, "Great year.' I want to win. I want to make a couple of hundred thousand bucks this week. That's my goal."

If Toledo, whose season is now over, doesn't finish in the top 125, he'll have to earn his tour playing privileges by placing in the top 30 of the PGA Tour Qualifying School. It's a grueling 108-hole tournament that Toledo knows well.

He was there 10 times between 1986 and 1997, trying to land on the PGA Tour. Golf's premiere players, like Singh and Tiger Woods, have never been there. For grinders like Toledo, it's just another fight.

"Do you think that scares me?" Toledo said. "I've been there 10 times. If I have to go, it will be No. 11. It's no big deal.

"No big deal at all."

_ Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 771-4303 or