GOLF Magazine Interview: Chi Chi Rodriguez

GOLF Magazine Interview: Chi Chi Rodriguez

Chi Chi Rodriguez
Patrick Murphy-Racey/S

This interview originally appeared in the May, 1980 isuue of GOLF Magazine.

There are very few success stories, the classic rags-to-riches yarns, on the PGA Tour. Most of the top players had little more to do than grapple with prom nights and overcome chemistry exams, and when they decided to become golfers by profession, Dad’s club membership helped pave the way.

This is not to imply that conquering the game of golf, the world’s most defiant sport, is not success in itself. The Nicklauses, Watsons and Crenshaws certainly have endured hellish tests of patience, stamina and courage to perfect the most minute aspects of their games and win again and again. But their routes to the summit were uncluttered by peripheral concerns. The golf course was their only real foe, and a relatively tameable one at that in the larger perspective of things.

When you talk about “success stories.” You want to hear about obstacle and old-fashioned guts and falling down hard and getting up again and daring to pursue the unattainable and attaining it after all. You want to hear about mountains that were climbed, not hills.

In the slick realm of circuit golf, there is only a handful of mountain climbers: Lee Trevino, because of his well-publicized impoverished youth; Ben Hogan, because of his lack of innate ability; Lee Elder, because of his race; and Gary Player, because of his physical limitations.

And there is Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, because of all of the above. Now there’s a success story, full of all of the elements that make you stand up and cheer, get a knot in your throat and think about your own small victories. If ever golf had a Rocky, it’s this wafer thin little man with skin the color of a vanilla bean, who, if it weren’t for his impeccable garb, could get lost in the crowd in Spanish Harlem.

The fact is that Rodriguez never got lost in any crowd, which is a miracle considering his hopeless beginnings. But it was a miracle of his own making. He shed the shackles of a Puerto Rico slum to become on of the sport’s wealthiest, best loved and most charitable figures.

Now a graying, 44-year-old veteran, whose seasons on the Tour are admittedly numbered, Rodriguez looks back on his extraordinary climb up the mountain with a firm smile and says, “I always was a dreamer.”

Visions of fame and riches began to enter his head at the age of 7, when he started working as a forecaddie at Berwind Country Club, a 20-minute drive from San Juan. “There was a big banyan tree by the entrance to the clubhouse,” he reflects, “and several other kids and I would sit in it and watch the fancy convertibles drive through the gate. There I was, without shoes, telling friends that somebody I’d own a car like that. They all laughed, of course. But I knew it would come true.”

Vintage Hollywood. And there’s more.

Not only did the infant Rodriguez almost die from rickets and sprue, but as an adolescent he had to defend himself against the bats that lived in the roof of the shack his father had built. “They’d come out at night and fly into the room; my brothers and I would kill them in mid-air with broomsticks. They carry rabies, you know. Anyway, that’s one reason I have such good reflexes.”

Then, as a pointed afterthought, Rodriguez says something that crystallizes him as a human being: “I don’t like to kill anything just for fun. But I had to do it back in those days to survive.”

Chi Chi’s early dreams of prosperity coincided with his discovery of golf, but his learning experience took place far from the stately fairways of Berwind. “I made my own clubs out of guava limbs,” he says, “and I made my golf balls from tin cans—perfectly round with a piece of lead stuck in the center. I could hit them about 100 yards. My friends and I would dig holes at the baseball park, one at second base and one at home plate, and we’d play our own version of golf, and sometimes bet nickels.”

As a child, Rodriguez looked like a toothpick that would snap at the slightest touch, and the prospect of his excelling at anything athletic must have seemed nothing more than the dreams he speaks of. But the more he banged away at those tin golf balls, the more he developed tremendous hand action, an asset that would make him almost a million dollars in official Tour winnings.

It would also make him GOLF MAGAZINE’s All-America sand player for 1979, a talent he displays on the following two pages of this issue.

The road to this pot of golf was full of chuck holes, deep ruts and boulders. Serious thoughts of a golf career had to be given third priority to putting food in his stomach and a shirt on his back. He labored in the sugar cane fields as a youth, did his time in the Army and spent his early twenties as a dishwasher. But when Rodriguez struck the vein, it was the mother lode. All the guava limbs and tin cans began to pay off when he landed a job as assistant pro at Dorado Beach Country Club and gained the admiration and affection of some nick folks named Rockefeller, who happened to own the place. Nelson and Laurence liked the unabashed, diligent Rodriguez so much that they decided to sponsor him on the Tour. And Chi Chi didn’t disappoint them.

As Eddie Elias, Rodriguez’ longtime manager, comments, “People told me when I first signed him that I should milk everything I could out of him fast, because he wouldn’t last. Well, he’s the only pro I’ve handled who has won in 1964 and in 1979.”

It was Chi Chi, actually who encouraged Elias to expand his fledging golf stable, and Chi Chi scouted and recruited talent with the zeal of Ziegfeld. Underlying his keen eye for potential money-makers was a paternal desire to help young unknowns get a foot in the spotlight. His discovery of Bill Kratzert, “who does everything right,” has developed into such a close friendship that they fret about each other’s progress in tournaments and exchange “finds” in the form of wedges and putters.

“Cheech also brought me Hubert Green,” recalls Elias. “He felt Hubert was going to be the next superstar out there, and right after I signed him he won three tournaments in a row. Chi Chi’s instincts are amazing. He suggested that I bring in John Mahaffey because he had this gut feeling he was ready for a comeback. Sure enough, soon after John joined us, he won the PGA Championship. I can also thank Chi Chi for bringing Fuzzy Zoeller to my attention before he won The Masters.”

With his good business head and what Elias calls “raw brilliance,” the diminutive Puerto Rican has parlayed his circuit income into extensive land holdings (centered in Akron, Ohio). With his boyish charisma, he has also attracted numerous endorsements, from Chrysler to Chase Manhattan to Eastern Airlines. “He’s the best after-dinner speaker I’ve ever heard,” adds his manager, obviously overjoyed that he followed his own intuition years ago.

Today, Rodriguez’ worth is… well, let’s just say that his dreams in the banyan tree came true. Over and over again. To assume that he is a millionaire would be a naive underestimation.

An adjunct to his heavy golf-business pursuits is politics, a consuming passion that has given rise to rumors that he plans someday to seek election as governor of Puerto Rico. But for Chi Chi, a lively advocate of the free-enterprise system, who never neglects squeezing in a word for “this great country, the United States of America,” interest and involvement are two different things. As Elias observes, “It’s more of a serious hobby than anything else. He’s very aware politically and avidly keeps abreast of current events, but he’s not active politically and he has no goals in that direction. I think he feels a responsibility as a celebrity to be knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world, just in case his opinion would lend weight to an issue or crisis.”

That is not far-fetched or presumptuous thinking on Rodriguez’ part. In September of 1979, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, addressing Congress on the Panama Canal question, related a memorable pro-am conversation he’s had with the Puerto Rican six years earlier. At the time, Chi Chi had adamantly advised the United States to return the Canal, adding that anything else would smack of American imperialism. He had further warned that Panama could balloon into another Cuba if not handled with care. O’Neill paid heed, and Chi Chi scored well on Capitol Hill.

Kratzert suggests that Rodriguez’ preoccupation with foreign affairs has a sporadically negative effect on his game. “I wish he would follow the world scene less,” Kratzert says, shaking his head a bit. “Sometimes he worries more about what’s happening in Afghanistan than what’s happening on the golf course. During practice rounds especially he talks a great deal about trouble spots and hunger overseas. But, you know, he’s such a humanitarian. He’s obsessed with the betterment of conditions for everyone. And he’s an incurable optimist who never looks on the dark side. He thinks there’s a solution to every problem.”

Of course, the real measure of a person is not in how much he talks, but in how much he does. And in this respect, Chi Chi Rodriguez stands taller than Paul Bunyan. It would be a futile search to find an equally benevolent soul in golf, in sports, in any arena. While most affluent men with similar backgrounds handily forget their origins and the way it was to be hungry, Chi Chi remembers. Indeed, remembering is one of the things he does best.

Chi Chi shuns discussion of his charitable activities, regarding them as highly personal matters. But when pressed, he will say, “I have a good heart. I love everybody. When someone hurts, I hurt.”

His philanthropic deeds are so awesome in number that one wonders how he is able to make time for golf. As Lionel Hebert once proclaimed, “If Chi Chi had concentrated more on his game then on people and the needs of others, he would have won twice as many tournaments.”

Young people are the focus of his generosity. Each year, he stages The Chi Chi Invitational at Dorado Beach, the proceeds of which go to the Children’s Hospital of Puerto Rico. He delivers inspirational speeches at orphanages and correctional schools. In 1979, he conducted the first golf clinic for underprivileged children in New York City’s Central Park. If a veteran’s hospital is in the vicinity of a Tour stop, Rodriguez can be found there when he’s not on the course. Back home he gives poor youngsters golf clubs and free access to the lush fairways of Dorado, where he is the resident professional. When he retires he plans to adopt about five children of various races and nationalities and ensconce them in his 8,000-square-foot residence. Within its five bedrooms, seven bathrooms and swimming pool, he, his wife and daughter have trouble finding one another.

“That house is a real showplace,” says Elias. “But few people know that it’s the first home Chi Chi has ever owned. He bought his mother and six brothers and sisters homes before he thought about buying one for himself.” With a trace of exasperation, Elias adds, “he’s given so much money away. He could have been a millionaire many times over.”

Capsulizing Rodriguez’ warmth and largesse, LPGA star Jo Ann Washam states, “I’ve never met anyone more full of life and love than Chi Chi.” The two mighty mites pooled their resources to win the 1977 Mixed Team Championship, and Jo Ann won more than a trophy. She also picked up a wealth of short game tips from her partner and a clear insight into what makes one of golf’s most vital personalities tick. “He’s interested in everything around him. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call him a Renaissance man.”

It was just typical of the man that after innocently violating the new one-ball rule in the final round of this year’s Phoenix Open, he contacted Deputy Commissioner Clyde Mangum and told him of the infraction. No one knew but Chi Chi, yet he accepted disqualification and the loss of $615 in prize money without so much as batting an eye.

Perhaps the most touching gesture Rodriquez makes is within the boundaries of the circuit itself. Whenever he wins an event he throws a lavish dinner party for all the Tour caddies, a tradition that has enshrined him as a hero in, “the yard.”

“Chi Chi is unbelievable,” vouches veteran bag-toter Richard Holzer. “He puts on a great spread for us. He makes the caddies feel special, like we really count. Cheech even says he’s going to provide us with limousines and tuxedos the next time he wins. You know, this may sound corny and unrealistic, but he’s really one of us.”

Rodriguez explains, “Those guys work hard, and when their pros don’t play worth a darn, they don’t eat well. The dinner is just a token of my appreciation. The caddies are so overlooked out here, and I remember the tough times I had making ends meet when I used to carry the bag.”

Chi Chi’s charity even extends to the golf course proper, where he entertains the office-weary, weekend galleries with familiar swordsman routines and quick one-liners. “I do it to make people laugh,” he offers. “Americans are so hard-working, and half of them don’t enjoy their work, so I try to give them something to smile about.”

One of the first pros to inject humor and color into the otherwise staid Tour, Rodriguez has drawn a loyal following bent on witnessing a bit of mischief with their golf. But Chi Chi’s pioneering in the frivolity department has garnered an occasional frown from former Commissioner Joe Dey and a few peers.

“Mr. Dey asked me not to put my hat over the hole after I sunk a putt because it didn’t look good,” says Chi Chi in all reverence. “And some of the pros claimed that I damaged the area around the cup. So I stopped doing that. Maybe I did overdo it. But I didn’t mean to.

“I still do the bit where I pretender that my putter is a saber. Nowadays showmanship is more acceptable, but I’ve learned when to do it and when to turn it off. A lot of guys out here are very serious, and God bless them, that’s their personality. It’s not a sin to be business-like.”

An ardent admirer of Chi Chi, Hubert Green has always applauded his comedy efforts and comes to his defense against his more somber detractors. “Chi Chi does it all. He dresses beautifully, he’s the consummate gentleman, a terrific player and a fantastic entertainer. He is what Tour golf should be all about. There’s a lot of talk about the dull future of this game. But if more of the pros behaved like Cheech, there’d be no cause for concern. Tour players must sell themselves today. People come out to be entertained as much as to see great shots.

Sam Snead contends that golf’s modern era has produced only two real shotmakers, Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez. With his superbly skillful hands (“the best in the game,” claims Kratzert), Cheech can pull miracles out of his bag around the green. Give him any lie in any bunker and he’ll likely end up in better shape than if he’d hit from Position A. Indeed, it is “on the beach” that Rodriguez has built his castle, his reputation.

“He taught me so much about sand play,” confides Washam, “that I aim for bunkers now. Even when the ball is buried, I know exactly what it’s going to do. He made that part of the game much easier for me.”

His make-’em-laugh repertoire may have lost some steam, but what’s left of it still pulls the fans. And his artistry of technique pulls the students of the game. Still, it would not be outrageous to assert that most of his devotees come out to see him because he is a success story. When you watch Chi Chi Rodriguez stride eagerly down a fairway, you dare to believe and dream again.

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