Simple Twist of Fate: A Chance Encounter With An NFL Great Changed Michael Herrera’s Life
Michael Herrera will always wonder if the enormous break he got was by happenstance or something closer to fate.
The Los Angeles native wasn’t even supposed to attend a charity tournament at Camarillo’s Spanish Hills Club in October 2021. But he got a call the day before from an official of the Advocates Pro Golf Association (APGA) Tour, the mini-tour circuit on which Herrera plays, asking if he could pitch in by making an appearance. His job was typical for a professional golfer at one of these events: Stand on a tee and hit magnificent drives for the group to marvel at and potentially use as their own.
One group motored up in their carts, and because there was a bit of a wait, an athletic-looking gentleman with a friendly smile struck up a conversation. At first, Herrera didn’t know he was speaking to Ronnie Lott, the pro football Hall of Famer, USC alum and Super Bowl winner with the San Francisco 49ers. They quickly discovered that their Inland Empire roots were intertwined: Lott grew up in modest circumstances in Rialto, 20 miles northwest of Herrera’s home in Moreno Valley.
“The dialogue between us is going back and forth — hey, you speak my language!” Lott recalled recently with a laugh. “They don’t usually make pro football players in Rialto, and they don’t make pro golfers in Moreno Valley. There was just a feeling about Michael — that he was a good young man who was really trying to make a name for himself.”
That encounter changed the prospects of Herrera’s career. “It’s crazy lucky,” he said of meeting Lott. “Sometimes, you’re just in the right place at the right time.” Lott, Herrera said, “knows how to take it to the next level, and that’s what I want to do.”
After playing college basketball and a bit of golf at Riverside City College, Herrera decided to become a professional golfer in 2020. But he also was struggling to pull together enough money to enter tournaments, with he and his dad, Hugo, splitting the costs as Michael worked in a golf course cart barn. Then Lott offered to pay Herrera to wear the logo of his car dealership, Tracy Toyota, and it provided the golfer with the boost he needed to loosen up and not worry so much about just making paychecks.
The Lott connection also led to an association with well-known agent Sandy Sandoval, who struck other sponsor deals for Herrera, who’s now cloaked in many lucrative logos. The APGA also supported Herrera in numerous ways, helping with costs and providing a coach and equipment. “It was so much weight lifted off my dad and me,” Herrera said.
It all came together when Herrera received the APGA’s exemption to compete in the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines last February.
With a big contingent of family and friends on hand to watch his major-league debut, Herrera shot scores of even-par 72 on the Torrey Pines North Course and 3-over-par 75 on the demanding South Course. Though he missed the cut, Herrera’s results bested 45 players, most of whom regularly play on the PGA Tour.
“I’m excited, but I’m not putting too much pressure on myself,” Herrera, 25, said before the tournament. “I’m prepared. I’ve worked really hard. I’m very confident. And if things get tough out there, I’m going to keep my head on straight.”
Those are the qualities that continue to impress people who are regularly in Herrera’s company. He is diligent, driven and personable, and while he’s still relatively raw as a top-level competitor, Herrera is beginning to show some polish.
He has become a top performer on the APGA Tour, a circuit founded to support minority golfers in their pursuit of a pro playing career. The tour’s stature has skyrocketed in recent years because of high-profile sponsors such as Farmers Insurance and Cisco, and the numerous sponsor exemptions its players have received on the PGA Tour.
The APGA’s reasonable entry fees, good purses and opportunities to play PGA Tour-level courses such as Torrey Pines and Valhalla GC have contributed to improvement in Herrera’s game, and he enjoyed his best season in 2022. He posted nine top-10 finishes in 12 starts and celebrated his first APGA victory last spring, when he drained a birdie putt on the 18th hole at TPC Scottsdale for a closing 68 and a 1-shot win. Only a couple of months earlier, on the same green, Scottie Scheffler had celebrated his first PGA Tour victory.
The Sky’s The Limit
The small gold hoop earrings that Herrera sports in each lobe are a subtle statement. He doesn’t lack confidence and carries the quiet swagger of an athlete who’s made his share of winning shots at the buzzer.
“I feel like I do have that edge. I show up at the course with a different energy. I hope it’s not a cocky energy. But it’s an energy that I feel like if I play well, it’s going to be tough for you to beat me.”
Basketball was Herrera’s first love growing up because he was following his father’s sporting past. Hugo Herrera was raised in a poor section of Guatemala City in Central America and escaped the challenges of everyday life by playing basketball. His entire family made shoes so that his mother could sell them at the market. Hugo eventually got good enough to play at the national level, but his family, threatened by neighborhood gangs, left Guatemala for Los Angeles when Hugo was in his late teens.
Hugo and his wife, Jelin, eventually settled in Moreno Valley, and the dad has supported his wife and four children by working as a maintenance man in shopping malls, sometimes commuting 90 minutes each way.
The long hours didn’t keep Hugo from also forming a club basketball team on which Michael could play, and the boy excelled. By high school at Valley View, the six-foot Herrera was among the top performers in his section and averaged 18 points his senior year.
As for golf? It wasn’t on the family’s radar for much of Michael’s youth. The only time they saw a course was when they drove past Moreno Valley’s Cottonwood Golf Center, but when Michael said he’d like to try the sport, Hugo quickly shut him down. “A white man’s sport,” Hugo said. “Too much money. That’s not for us.”
It took much more badgering by a 10-year-old Michael to convince his dad to at least pull into the Cottonwood parking lot. And when they checked on the prices, they were pleasantly surprised that they could play together for a combined $20, including clubs. Father and son were hooked from the first hole they played.
“That day we went out,” Michael recalled, “we fell in love with it. Golf was a puzzle we needed to figure out, and that was huge.”
Still, Herrera dreamed of playing professional basketball and pursued that at Riverside City College. But he often found himself sitting on the bench, and it was then that his basketball coach, Phil Mathews, reached out to his own college roommate from long ago, Ken Bentley, a former executive at Néstle who founded the APGA Tour. He played a round with Herrera, was impressed with what he saw in his game and attitude and invited him to play an APGA event as an amateur. Michael posted a top-10 finish.
Bentley, a former college tennis player, fully believed that Herrera’s basketball experience could translate to the golf course. “He’s competitive. He’s a really good athlete,” Bentley said. “He just hasn’t played a lot of golf. But I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Many of Herrera’s supporters have the same conviction. Lott said he felt like a college scout when he first met Michael on that fateful day at Spanish Hills. Would potential equal success?
“He’s telling me about what he’s trying to do,” Lott recalled, drawing up an analogy. “And I’m thinking, ‘So you think you can make it to SC? You think you can play here?’ And his confidence, and the confidence in the people around him, made me a believer.”
It took a village to raise Michael Herrera as a golfer, and in that he’s got a very large and proud family.