PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico (AP) — The only Mexican left in the Mayakoba Golf Classic, Esteban Toledo embraced the attention of his countrymen and gave them plenty to cheer with a 7-under 63 on Saturday.
He chipped in from about 25 yards for an eagle on No. 13, then closed with a birdie on 18 — seemingly pushed the final few inches by cries of “Llega! Llega!” — “Get there!”
Toledo rose to fifth place at 8-under 202, seven strokes behind Brian Gay going into the final round of the PGA Tour’s second visit south of the border.
“It would be the greatest thing that could happen for Mexico for me to win here,” Toledo said. “Tomorrow is going to be a tough day, but I think I can pull it off. … I’ve got to give a show to the fans. That’s the most important. If I can do that, then I can win.”
Toledo’s challenge became a lot tougher when Gay — playing the final group — birdied his last three holes and five of the last six for a 62. At 15-under 195, Gay was five ahead of Steve Marino. Matt Kuchar and John Merrick were tied for third at 201.
“I’ve never had a five-shot lead,” said Gay, seeking his first PGA Tour win. “I’ll try to play my game as best I can and just play smart.”
Merrick, the leader after each of the first two rounds, went head-to-head with Gay in the final group. They were pulling away from the pack together, then Merrick made his first bogey of the tournament. Gay followed with birdies on six of the last nine holes.
“I guess I kind of thrived on that a little bit there at the end,” he said, grinning.
Between Toledo’s stirring round and Gay’s tremendous close, Roland Thatcher polished off the lowest round of the tournament, a 61 that broke the course record set by Fred Funk en route to winning the inaugural event last year. Thatcher moved all the way from the cut line to a group tied for ninth at 205.
“I was able to keep a hot stretch going and stay aggressive for the whole day,” Thatcher said.
Scores were much lower on Saturday thanks to softer breezes off the Caribbean Sea. Strong gusts on Friday produced the highest stroke average in relation to par of any round on the U.S. tour this year. Another indication of the difference: Parasailers and windsurfers were again visible over the treetops, as even they found the wind too stiff on Friday.
Toledo was part of the first-ever event in his homeland last February, but didn’t give the locals too many thrills. After shooting a 66 in the opening round, he never broke par again, finishing in a tie for 41st. (Gay was among those he tied.)
Toledo shot 70 and 69 in the first two rounds this year. Tied for 13th when his round began, his surge began with birdies on the first, fourth and sixth holes.
Slowed by a bogey on No. 8, he rebounded with a pair of birdies. That’s about the time his gallery started to grow.
When he walked to the 18th green, fans were wild with delight, one man chanting “To!-le!-do!” After his birdie putt fell, he pounded his chest twice to more loud whooping and hollering. Then he walked to the scorer’s trailer amid cheers of “Mexico! Mexico!” and a cry of “Mexican Tiger!”
“I was very relaxed, hearing all of the people cheering for Mexico, and it kind of got me going,” Toledo said. “They know I’ve played the tour for so many years and they know I have the game. They believe I can win. I believe I can win.”
This is his 282nd PGA Tour event and he’s still seeking his first victory. He plays mostly on the minor Nationwide Tour. During a stop in Los Angeles earlier this year, he helped pull two women out of a flipped-over, smoking car on the highway.
But being a Good Samaritan is only part of his unique story. He also was a pro boxer for four years and is the youngest of 11 children raised in a home with dirt floors and no plumbing.
Now there’s the chance to become a first-ever PGA Tour winner, and to do it in front of his people. He sort of knows what to expect after having topped John Daly in the 2000 Mexican Open.
“Hopefully it happens the same tomorrow,” Toledo said.