With his victory at the Wells Fargo Championship on Sunday, Derek Ernst became golf’s newest Cinderella boy. But as much as I enjoyed the 22-year-old rookie’s takedown of Phil, Rory and Westy at Quail Hollow Club, his wasn’t my favorite story of this past weekend.
No, those honors go to a pair of longtime underdogs, Esteban Toledo and Tim O’Neal. Toledo, a 50-year-old journeyman who never won on the PGA Tour, became the Champions Tour’s first Mexican winner with his Cinco de Mayo triumph at the Insperity Championship in Houston. And the even more obscure O’Neal, a 40-year-old Georgian who as recently as 2011 was giving lessons in his hometown, won the NEC Series-PGA Tour Latinoamérica’s Colombian Open just a week after losing in a playoff at that tour’s Uruguay stop.
Before winning in Houston, Toledo’s career highlight was a victory in the 2005 Web.com Lake Erie Charity Classic. A former boxer who grew up the youngest of 11 children in a home with dirt floors and no plumbing, he learned golf while working at a Mexican driving range and, in Trevinoesque fashion, reached the pinnacle of the PGA Tour. In eight full seasons, he notched a pair of runner-up finishes (2002 Buick Open, 2003 B.C. Open) but never attained the Hall of Fame stature of the “Merry Mex.”
A few weeks ago, I watched Toledo’s bid for a breakthrough victory at the Champions Tour’s Greater Gwinnett Championship slip away with consecutive double bogeys on the back nine. Rooting for the underdog, as we tend to do, I felt for him. And so it was nice to see him achieve redemption in Houston.
Meanwhile, O’Neal has been plying his trade in golf’s various backwaters since turning pro in 1997. An African-American who played at Jackson State, O’Neal once was sponsored by the actor Will Smith and twice missed earning a PGA Tour card by a single stroke at Q-School. In 2010, after a stint playing in Asia, O’Neal quit competing when his sponsorship support dried up and for two years gave lessons at Savannah’s Southbridge Golf Club. But he resurrected his career last year playing in Morocco, where he won three European mini-tour events before earning his PGA Tour Latinoamérica card.
With his victory in the Colombian Open – a venerable tournament whose winners have included Arnold Palmer, Roberto de Vicenzo, Sam Torrance and Bernhard Langer – O’Neal moved to second on the tour’s money list. The top five at season’s end earn Web.com Tour status in 2014.
Of no small significance, of course, Toledo and O’Neal are minority golfers whose accomplishments can – and hopefully will – inspire others. Congratulations to both men.