Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Gwinnett Daily Post reporter Keith Farner, left, gets some instruction from Champions Tour player Esteban Toledo, while serving as his caddie during the Greater Gwinnett Championship Pro-Am on Wednesday at TPC at Sugarloaf.
DULUTH -- Esteban Toledo didn't waste any time showing his personality.
Standing on the No. 10 tee waiting to start his round, Toledo walked over and recognized his "caddie" for the day.
"How many holes?" he asked.
"About three to six or so," the caddie said.
"How about one?" he said, chuckling.
"If you mess up, no bueno," he said. "No, you can go all 18, if you want."
With that, an entertaining day began. As part of the Champions Tour "caddie for a day" program, the tour invited members of the media to tag along with a tour pro and literally work as a caddie. So for a few hours -- and nine holes -- on Wednesday during the Greater Gwinnett Championship Pro-Am at TPC Sugarloaf, I traded my notebook for a yardage book, and picked up a golf bag and wet towel to work with Toledo.
Thankfully, Toledo's full-time caddie, Larry Dittman, walked with us and shared as much about yardage, math and sprinkler heads as he did about Toledo's mood and personality.
The first tip Toledo gave me was he prefers his golf ball clean. The best tip Dittman offered was Toledo is a fast walker, and you might as well get a head start after each tee shot, especially carrying a 70-pound bag -- without 20 pounds of rain gear. While the tour for professional golfers 50 and older allows carts, the constant juggle of yardage books, flagsticks and clubs is a grueling job I have a greater appreciation for now.
While a cart was available, Dittman let me carry the bag for several holes to get a true experience.
On the No. 10 green, our first hole of the day, we stood over about a 20-foot putt, and Toledo wanted my input.
"We have to agree on something," Toledo said. "I'll hit it, if I miss it, we'll miss it together."
"How about one or two balls to the right side," I said.
He put a good roll on it, but it slid to the left side. No big deal, he just didn't want to "three wax," or three-putt from 20 feet.
Toledo and Dittman are an entertaining duo; they've known each other for more than 20 years and Dittman's worked as his caddie for eight. They're friends, used to room together on the road -- before Dittman's snoring became too much -- and even play golf together near their homes in California.
On almost every hole, Dittman knew which club Toledo needed moments after the previous shot was hit.
"I don't really pay attention to everybody else," he said, as he walked toward the nearest sprinkler head. "Because you have to keep up with your player."
During our early morning Pro-Am round at the Greater Gwinnett Championship at TPC Sugarloaf on Wednesday, Toledo talked with nearly every person in our group, which was four other players, two caddies, a couple of golf cart drivers and two scorekeepers.
Toledo, 50, has one of the more interesting backgrounds of anyone on the Champions Tour. A native of Mexicali, Mexico, he's the youngest of 11 children and a former professional boxer. Toledo also has an active charitable foundation to help the less fortunate have a better childhood than he did when he grew up on dirt floors with no plumbing.
He donates 10 percent of each paycheck to an orphanage in Mexicali.
On the PGA Tour, Toledo made $3.7 million in career earnings thanks to 11 top-10 finishes, including two each of second and third place. Already this year on the Champions Tour, Toledo has earned $125,854 after a top 10 and three top 25 finishes. Toledo said he plans to play in about 28 tournaments each year.
Toledo visited the orphanage two weeks ago and said his foundation would begin to build 50 rooms in January, each with a kitchen and shower.
Along with his personal donations, Toledo has scheduled a benefit golf tournament in Tustin, Calif. and a skins game in Los Cabos, Mexico.
"I know what they go through," Toledo said. "I've been there, done that, and it's tougher. I kind of know a little bit about it. For me to know a little bit about that and help them out. And all my friends and family who help me in that decision. I'm not doing it for me, I'm doing it for them, that's what it's all about."
Perhaps because of that, Toledo is full of life and openly coached every player during the Pro-Am.
"Hit it like it's your mother-in-law," Toledo said to one player in our group, before the tee shot dribbled about 30 feet. "Well, I guess you like her."
Toledo turned professional in 1986, but one of his career highlights came in the 2002 Buick Open when he played alongside Tiger Woods -- who won the tournament -- and earned a career-best paycheck of $217,800 after he finished tied for second.
Dittman knows Toledo well, too. Preparing for the tournament during the Pro-Am, Dittman let Toledo hit a second-shot 3-wood on the par-5 No. 18, knowing he couldn't reach the green in two.
"I'll let him do that in this," Dittman said. "Because then he knows that he can't do it during the tournament."
Jokingly, Toledo said a caddie must follow three rules: Keep up, put up and shut up. Being on time and standing about three feet to the right of every shot is paramount, too, depending on shadows.
At each hole, Dittman reminded me to stay ahead, check the yardage book, keep a wet towel handy -- for the clean balls -- and keep moving.
"How far to the first bunker?" Toledo asked on every par 4 and par 5.Once we're in the fairway, it's time to find the nearest sprinkler head, compare it to the yardage book and walk off the difference.
"The player is going to ask you, 'How far to the front?'" Toledo said. "Then you give how far to the flag. Don't even mention center of the green."
Dittman a former professional himself, has caddied on the Nationwide and PGA tours. When he's not caddying for Toledo, he's usually at Riveria Country Club in Los Angeles double bagging for such celebrities as Mark Wahlberg and Larry David. A good month yields $8,000, he said.
But he's also absorbed the brunt of a Pro-Am when a stray amateur's shot hit him in an eye socket and left him with two black eyes.
While Toledo and Dittman have a strong relationship, they each know when a tournament starts they're all business and take each shot at a time. Dittman, while he acknowledges he must read Toledo's personality, said carrying the bag is just one part of the job.
"You need to calm him down," Toledo said, explaining a caddie's job. "It's not about what the caddie needs, it's about what the player needs. It's a huge impact on the shot."
Dittman gave one example at a qualifying tournament where they made double bogey down the stretch and had a par 3 coming up where at 8-iron left them short all week. Dittman called for an 8-iron again, and Toledo came within feet of the pin, because he was fired up about the double bogey.
"That's knowing your player," Dittman said.
There were more than a few times Dittman -- who is nearly 20 years older than me -- reminded me to walk faster or keep moving, and Toledo didn't make a significant putt off of one of my reads. But I did have one memorable moment. On a par 4 on the back nine, I gave Toledo 157 yards to the front for his second shot, and he stuck it within 10 feet.
"That's good yardage," Toledo said.
"Good yardage," Dittman said, smiling. "You don't hear that too often caddying for him."