LA JOLLA, Calif. – Michael Herrera is making his PGA Tour debut today at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. It’s the course where he first attended a tournament and watched Tiger Woods.
“After I saw it, I’m like I want to play,” he said. “I want to do this for a living and it inspired me.”
Herrera’s local-boy-makes-good story is an easy one to love but that barely scratches the surface of his story in golf. It turns out Herrera’s story has way more to it.
Ronnie Lott remembers the tee shot.
He was playing in Cedric the Entertainer’s Celebrity Golf Classic, a charity golf tournament, in August 2021 and Herrera was stationed at a tee box on a par 5 to hit drives for the various teams. Lott, the Hall of Fame defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers, and his group couldn’t believe the sound one of Herrera’s drives made and the distance it traveled. Lott recalls the moments that followed in cinematic detail.
“It was that moment, where I was like, hey, kid, come talk to me, I want to know your story,” Lott recalled during a phone interview.
Herrera, 24, told Lott, about growing up in Moreno Valley, California, not far from where Lott, too, was raised (in Rialto), and how he gave up basketball, where he averaged more than 18 points per game in high school, to pursue making it as a professional golfer, primarily on the Advocates Pro Golf Association, a development tour designed to bring greater diversity to the game by developing African-Americans and other minorities for careers in golf. Lott was impressed and asked, “How are you paying for this? Who’s helping you?”
“Nobody,” said Herrera, who was working part-time at the cart barn of a golf course to pay tournament entry fees. “It’s just me and my Pops. We split everything.”
Lott couldn’t help but think of the shoulders that had helped him climb to such heights – Harry Edwards, the American sociologist and civil rights activist, and Charlie Young, former USC football star and 13-year NFL veteran – and was moved to do something he’d never done before.
“Why wouldn’t I help somebody that really loves something? Why wouldn’t I help somebody with a dream?” Lott said. “You always want people to stand on your shoulders to see success. And, you know, that’s the greatest thing you can do for another human being.”
Lott and Herrera exchanged numbers that day. He didn’t realize that one of the greatest to ever play the game of football was about to take him under his wing.
“I had to look him up and then I was like, ‘Wow, he’s big time,’ ” Herrera said. Less than two weeks later, Lott called and asked a very direct question: “How much do you need for the rest of the year?”
“That’s how it all started,” said Herrera. “I gave him a number and he said, ‘OK,’ and he sent me the Tracy Toyota logo (of the car dealership that Lott owns) to get some shirts and hats made along with a check. It was such a relief. I play so much freer now.”
Lott also connected Herrera with agent Sandy Sandoval, whose clients include Patrick Reed, and helped him add a slew of logos to his shirt.
After every tournament round, Herrera texts Lott a report and Lott always asks, “What do you have to do to get better?” Among Lott’s advice that’s stuck with Herrera is to be in the moment and be grateful for the moment.
“He pushes me,” Herrera said. “To know that he’s an athlete and he knows what it takes to make it, it’s huge. He’s a great support system.”
Herrera’s support system extends beyond Lott to Allison Keller, the PGA Tour’s chief administrative officer, who has hosted him during tournaments in the Jacksonville, Florida, area, and teared up when Herrera and fellow APGA pro Joseph Dent left “a sweet note” and Starbucks card as a thank you.
“He’s got personality plus,” she said. “I think he’ll make it in golf but if he doesn’t I’d love to hire him at the PGA Tour.”
Truth be told, Herrera’s first love is basketball. He says he was a good enough point guard to play Division I in college but didn’t have the grades.
“UC-Irvine wanted me,” he said.
He ended up playing hoops at Riverside City College until basketball coach Phil Mathews got a look at his golf ability. Mathews saw raw promise and he sat Herrera down and told him he could keep playing basketball, but he wasn’t going to be great at it. But he could be great at golf.
Mathews said he was going to cut Herrera for his own good, and introduced him to APGA founder Ken Bentley, his former college roommate at UC-Irvine. After Bentley, a former Nestle executive, played a round with Herrera at Wilshire Country Club, he offered him a spot in an APGA Tour event as an amateur, and Herrera bagged a top-10 finish. With the encouragement of the likes of veteran pro Kevin Hall, who played college golf at Ohio State and told Herrera he had enough game to chase the dream, Herrera turned pro in 2019.
“My game stacked up, and I thought, man, maybe there’s something here,” he said.
He enjoyed his best year yet in 2022, including his maiden APGA victory in April when he made birdie at 18 at TPC Scottsdale to win by a stroke. (He flamed out at the second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School and has only conditional status on PGA Tour Latinoamerica and PGA Tour Canada this season.) It was Mathews who had the privilege of informing his former player that he would be receiving a PGA Tour exemption at Torrey Pines.
“To have an exemption into any event would be amazing just to see where my game is at at that level,” Herrera said before receiving the news of his Farmers start.
I'm excited to share that I've received an exemption to play in the 2023 @FarmersInsOpen! It's a dream come true to not only get my first-ever PGA TOUR start, but to have it happen where I attended my first PGA TOUR tournament as a kid. Thanks to @WeAreFarmers for the opportunity https://t.co/JvdSaxkg4a
— Michael Herrera (@Mik3_love14) December 5, 2022
As a kid, Herrera would drive pass Cottonwood Golf Center, a nine-hole, 1,226-yard, par-28 municipal course in his hometown on the way to the mall and to basketball practice. He remembers seeing all that grass and pleading with his dad, Hugo, who emigrated from Guatemala as a teenager, to take him there.
“Golf is a rich man’s sport,” his father said.
But at age 10, after seemingly the 100th time he asked to go to the golf course, his father finally gave in, and they took up the game together. There were tears of joy when Herrera broke the news to his dad that he would be playing against the likes of Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa in the Farmers Insurance Open.
“It’s just one more step,” Herrera’s dad said. “It’s just the beginning.”
That he’s come this far is all the more remarkable given that Herrera never had a coach until his second year as a pro. His clubs were purchased from a barrel at a Roger Dunn Golf Shop. Thanks to the APGA, he was fitted for clubs by Callaway and started receiving professional instruction. He’s a late bloomer, but Lott believes the best is yet to come.
“I tell him to keep grinding, and I hope he continues to dream,” Lott said. “I have this thing I live by — exhaust every moment. And I love the fact that that’s what I’m seeing with Michael. He’s exhausting every moment. And you know, that’s all you can ask from a human being.”