Puerto Rico Profile: Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez
July 14, 2000
Many of Puerto Ricos great athletes start down the road to stardom on one of the islands ubiquitous baseball diamonds. The great golf champion Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez is no exception.
Chi Chi Rodriguez is one of the most liked and recognizable players in professional golf. He is known not only for his skill, but also for his humor and flair. Over the course of a career entering its fifth decade, Chi Chi has won 8 PGA tournaments and 22 Senior PGA events. Along the way, he has been one of the great entertainers of the game, wearing an ever-present fedora and pleasing crowds with his patented bullfighter routine.
Before all the money and fame, however, Chi Chi was out on a baseball field in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, learning to play golf. Using clubs made of guava branches, he would swing at tin cans pounded into balls, aiming for holes he had dug himself. With an incredible amount of persistence and determination as well as a job as a caddy during his teenage years Chi Chi managed to hone his skills to a professional level.
He joined the PGA Tour in 1960, a small, wiry 24 year old. Three years later, he won his first tournament, the Denver Open. He still considers that victory the sweetest moment in his golfing career, saying recently, "I won $5,300 and I felt I was the richest man on earth."
Chi Chi went on to win quite a bit more money over the next forty years. He recently topped $7 million in earnings for his career. Much of that money came on the senior tour. Chi Chi had always been a good golfer, but he excelled when he entered this phase of his career in 1985. He set a record by scoring eight consecutive birdies in 1987, and the following year he became the first golfer on the senior tour to win the same event the Digital Seniors Classic three years in a row. He won four tournaments in both 1990 and 1991 and has made four holes-in-one on the senior tour.
Throughout his career, Chi Chis inimitable spirit and extroverted style have made him the "clown prince" of golf. In a recent online chat on PGATour.com, Chi Chi explained the origins of his famous toreador dance.
"I used to put my hat over the hole when I made a birdie or eagle, because I felt the bird could fly out of the hole!" he said. When some other golfers complained, he changed the routine. "I thought the hole to be a bull and my putter was a sword, so after each one I killed the bull and put the sword away" in an imaginary scabbard on his side. He added, however, that he is not a violent person, insisting, "I would not kill a fly!"
Chi Chi Rodriguez is in fact a very spiritual person. He prays regularly, not for better golf scores, but for "acceptance" of the scores he gets. He also counts a brief meeting with Mother Theresa as the greatest moment in his life. "She didnt have anything yet had everything," he said. "Materially, she was poor; but spiritually, she was the richest woman who ever lived."
Perhaps inspired by Mother Theresas work, Chi Chi has made a commitment to help those less fortunate than himself. Of course, little about Chi Chi is conventional, and when he decided to do something for his community (he lives in South Florida), he developed a novel approach. He established the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation to turn around the lives of at-risk teenagers by teaching them golf. As Chi Chi has said, "To help these kids fight back, were arming them with clubs."
What sounds like a joke, however, is actually a clever method of injecting structure and responsibility into the lives of students who range from being learning disabled to being youthful offenders. Golf, said Chi Chi, "is a beautiful sport and is the most honorable sport there is. It is the only sport where athletes call penalties on themselves."
Moreover, the kids do more than just learn to play golf. They also study how a golf course is operated and are responsible for organizing actual golf tournaments. For the more ecologically minded participants, there are even programs to study the aquatic life in golf course ponds.
So far the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation has succeeded in its goals to keep kids in school and to make them responsible citizens by developing their "self-esteem, character, work ethic, social adjustment, and academic performance." In short, Chi Chi is teaching them to use the same tools that were the keys to his success, tools that go far beyond golf technique.
Chi Chi continues to be a mainstay of the Senior PGA Tour, and he is still competitive even though he has not won a tournament since 1993. He suffered a heart attack in 1998, but he bounced back the following year in characteristic fashion. He did not merely return to golf; he also became an advocate for heart disease prevention through proper diet and regular medical check-ups.
In fact, Chi Chi dispenses wisdom on a variety of subjects, including how to keep having fun on the golf course. "We all have our ups and downs," he said on PGATour.com. "When things are going bad, you think that no matter what you do, there are 1.3 billion people in China and 300 million in Russia that wish they could play like you do."