Olé, Chi Chi Rodriguez!
Few PGA Tour members have risen from such humble beginnings to create such a lasting legacy. Just hearing the name Chi Chi brings to mind the ever-present smile, the non-stop patter, the jaunty straw fedora, the toreador’s celebratory dance, and the prodigious drives. His popularity during his prime rivaled those other first-name stars like Arnie, Jack, Gary, Lee, and Billy.
Chi Chi was born in Puerto Rico in 1935 and struggled throughout his childhood to survive the poverty in his family. He turned pro in 1960, and he turned his life around. In 1964, he married his sweetheart Iwalani (their 53rd anniversary is this year) and added the necessary stability to his hectic lifestyle. At 5’ 7” and 117 pounds, Chi Chi was as slender as a greyhound, but he could hit his driver as far as anybody on the TOUR. And not many could match his short game and sand wedge play.
Chi Chi won eight official events in his 20 years on the TOUR, played on the 1973 Ryder Cup, and represented Puerto Rico in 12 World Cups. He joined the Senior Tour (now the Champions Tour) in 1985 and won 22 times in nine years, including two majors (Senior TPC and PGA Seniors). He also lost a U.S. Senior Open playoff to good friend Jack Nicklaus in 1991.
Chi Chi created his Youth Foundation and school in Clearwater, Florida, to assist at-risk children from low-income families or broken homes. His goal has been to improve their lives and their self-esteem through golf. A famous Chi Chi quote is, “A man never stands taller than when he stoops to help a child.”
Always a marvelous ambassador for golf and always concerned with helping others succeed, Chi Chi has received numerous awards. Among them are the Bob Jones Award (1989) from the USGA, their highest honor; the Old Tom Morris Award (1989), the highest honor of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America; and election to the World Humanitarian Sports Hall of Fame (1994). In 1992, Chi Chi became a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, the first Puerto Rican so honored.
What follows is pure Chi Chi. And that’s no bull!
NEGM: How did you get your nickname Chi Chi?
CCR: I loved baseball as a kid, and when I was very young, there was a guy named Chi Chi Flores in Puerto Rico. He was a third baseman and ended up in the Hall of Fame in the Puerto Rican League. He was my idol, so I started saying, “I am Chi Chi Rodriguez.” And the name stuck.
NEGM: How did you get into golf in the first place?
CCR: There was a golf course close to my house. When I was seven years old, I asked the caddie master for a job, but he said I was too small. But he made me a “forecaddie apprentice.” I made 10 cents that day. I got my first caddie job when I was nine. I made 25 cents that day. I first played golf with a tin can I mashed into a ball, and I hit it with a guava limb. By the time I was 12, I was a decent player. I came in second in the Puerto Rican open when I was 17. However, I really learned how to play golf in the army and pretty much developed my game during that time period.
NEGM: How did you get on the TOUR?
CCR: When I got out of the army, I learned that a man named Laurence Rockefeller had opened a luxury resort called Dorado Beach. Ed Dudley was the head pro during the winter and was also the first head professional at Augusta National. He made me the caddie master, and he also let me hit a lot of balls on the range to work on my game. In 1960, I turned professional because he and several other men, including Mr. Rockefeller, put up the money. In my first event, I finished 16th in the Buick Open and won $460.
NEGM: How did you develop such power to become one of the longest hitters on the TOUR?
CCR: Everybody was always telling me how small I was, but the clubs and the ball didn’t know my size. I used to swing broomsticks for the wind resistance and just developed my muscles. I was very flexible. I would coil on the backswing and then just uncoil as quickly as I could. I could hit it with anybody.
NEGM: Who were your best friends on Tour and the ones you most enjoyed playing with?
CCR: Bill Casper—a special man, a great family man with his own children and his adopted children. He always showed me respect, always called me Juan, and said I was good for the game because the fans loved me. Al Geiberger—always a gentleman and always smiling. Fuzzy—just a great guy to be around on and off the golf course. Ben Hogan—a lot of the pros were jealous of him, but we got along fine.
NEGM: What will you always remember about Jack Nicklaus?
CCR: Jack Nicklaus was always very good to me. I used to feel bad for Jack in the early years because the papers used to call him “Fat Jack” because Arnold was the idol of the writers and much of America at that time. When I wanted to start my Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation and school in Clearwater, Florida, Jack, who believes as I do in the importance of well-run charities, personally helped me raise $1,000,000 in one day to get my Foundation started.
NEGM: Why did you first throw your straw fedora over the hole when you made a birdie putt? And then devise your toreador dance?
CCR: I used to throw my hat over the hole when I was a kid to celebrate making the putt. When I got to the TOUR, I did it to emphasize the birdie and because it was fun. But some of the pros complained about me damaging the hole—which was not true at all. Anyway, Commissioner Joe Dey asked me to stop. I wanted to continue to bring some color to the game so I devised the bullfighter scenario with the putter as the sword. It worked pretty well, didn’t it, and it became my signature.
NEGM: What one person in your life has made an everlasting impression on you?
CCR: I think about Mother Theresa all the time, who I met through golf. She was in the Philippines, and I was a close friend of President Marcos. He asked me if I wanted to meet her. Of course, I did. She was something else, a little bitty thing just so full of compassion and caring. She was my inspiration for forming my Youth Foundation. I spent 45 minutes with her—the best 45 minutes of my life.
NEGM: What do you remember about winning those first two Skins Games on the Senior Tour in 1988 and 1989?
CCR: What a great experience it was both years! Yes, the money was something else [$300K; $120K], but just to be there with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player both times and with Sam Snead first and then Bill Casper in 1989. That was something special, too. Just the four of us on the whole course. What I remember especially is that I beat Arnold big both years [$20K; $70K]. He used to beat the pants off me when we were young, so I was able to get a little back then.
NEGM: Who would be in your Dream Foursome of today? From any time period?
CCR: Fuzzy Zoeller, Jerry Pate, and Paula Creamer. Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, and Ben Hogan.
NEGM: What are your plans for the future?
CCR: Yesterday is history, and tomorrow is a mystery! But I do know that I must remain busy, even at 81 years old. The future of golf is the children. The future of the country is the children. So, my emphasis will remain on my work at my Foundation and on teaching golf to young people. I want to make them not only good players but also good citizens.
“Chi Chi” Rodriguez doing his famous toreador action after sinking a birdie putt!
(All photography by Vicky MacKay)