Chi Chi Rodriguez is two persons—the brash song-and-dance man who delights galleries (and annoys fellow pros) with his japes off the tee and his jigs on the green, and the quiet son of poverty who broods over good and bad, is hypersensitive to criticism and, out of the spotlight, is something of a loner
August 09, 1964

Golfers who were raised on the hickory shaft like to recall, perhaps with more fondness than they felt at the time, the fun-loving days of Walter Hagen when he wore his knickers backwards or teed off in a tuxedo at Minikahda or Skokie or wherever. They are convinced that true color went out of the game when Hagen did. The dip into the gray seas of conformity, they admit, was not abrupt. There were the individualists of the late '30s and early '40s: straw-hatted Sam Snead with the picture swing; Ben Hogan, the grim little man who stared icily at anything that stirred behind the ropes; Jug McSpaden in sun goggles; Jimmy Demaret dressed in colors so loud they swore at the greens; Ralph Guldahl, combing his hair between shots; and Horton Smith, sinking putts right and left and—horrors—admitting that he could sink them. But by the late 1950s the transformation was, in the eyes of the old fun-lovers, complete. The PGA tour had silently become a sort of postgraduate school for effete, college-exposed players who dressed alike (shirts decorated with a crocodile, baseball-type cap), talked alike ("Yep," "Nope"), considered fifth place as good as winning and the most exciting incident in any week was Arnold Palmer's shirttail coming out.

If this version of progressively automated golf was true several years ago, it is, happily, less accurate today. Despite the big-money-every-week tour of the '60s, strong personalities are beginning to emerge, and some of them are certain to create legends every bit as heady as those of the past. Like a torrent of spilled oils on a canvas, the recent campaigns have produced a whole new cast of characters that rival any before them for color and excitement. Among these players are Tony Lema, who toasts the press with magnums of Moët; Gary Player, the warbling South African who doubles in the twist; Ken Venturi, who has come back theatrically from Utter Despair; and, most recently (and indelicately and controversially), Juan (Chi Chi) Rodriguez, 120 pounds of trouble.

"Golf has changed," said Ben Hogan recently. "I see pictures in the papers today of players throwing their hands in the air, the putter sailing above them on the green. They look like they've been shot in the back by an arrow. No one ever did that when I was playing regularly on the tour. It used to be there were only golf fans at the tournaments. Now there are sports fans, thousands and thousands of them. And they encourage the players to be more outgoing. That's one reason at least why you've got a Chi Chi Rodriguez."

This may be the era of the Big Three, of Arnie's Army (not so uncolorful itself), the Golden Bear and Champagne Tony, but this has been the year of Chi Chi's Bandidos, of beans and rice, of dances on the greens and straw hats in the winds. The only serious question of the year seems to be whether golf has Chi Chi or Chi Chi has golf. His Bandidos sometimes outnumber Arnie's Army, his tee shots sometimes outdistance Jack Nicklaus' and his flamboyant manner and rapport with the fans have left hundreds not caring whether Tony sticks to champagne or switches to home brew. As the most controversial player in professional golf today, as well as one of the best, it matters not whether Chi Chi Rodriguez is an odd legacy from a spectacular era or a spectacular mutation of a new one. What does matter is that he is, in fact, two people, both of them well worth knowing.

The Chi Chi Rodriguez on the golf course is the only one that people really see. This Chi Chi Rodriguez is the tiny Puerto Rican with the jaunty, small-brimmed straw hat, sunglasses, cigarette and dark skin who labors to make the gallery love him. He is the player who flails into a tee shot, zooms the ball beyond larger men and then turns to the crowd and winks, "Not bad for a little man, eh?" He is the player who responds to the wild applause rising from the fringes of the greens by waving his hat and holding up both hands like a campaigning politician. He is the player who throws his hat over the cup after a putt has fallen and dances around it, almost as if the outcries of "Olé" from his Bandidos in the throng have commanded the performance. He is also the player who can hit a poor shot into a pond and react, at least outwardly, just as entertainingly, assuring his approving followers, "Easy bogey now if Chi Chi can get the next one in the hole." And they giggle appreciatively.

Says this Chi Chi Rodriguez, "I've got plenty of good jokes for the crowd. I tell them I can't decide if I look like Brando or Newman. They like that." They just like Chi Chi.

At the PGA in Columbus, Ohio last month, Chi Chi explained to a cluster of his admirers as he waited to hit his next shot that he was a "hot-dog pro." Said Chi Chi, "You know what a hot-dog pro is? That's when somebody in the gallery looks at his pairing sheet and says here comes Joe Bologna, Sam Sausage and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Let's go get a hot dog." Big giggle, resounding applause.

This is a Chi Chi Rodriguez who can promote a laugh even when he studies a troublesome shot. "These pros," Chi Chi told some Bandidos in Columbus, "they write these books and tell you 100 ways to play this shot. But Chi Chi knows there's just four ways. You can hit it high, low, hook or slice. That's all." He thereupon hits a low hook and is out of trouble.

If this Chi Chi Rodriguez were a mere jokester who did nothing more, his dedicated followers would scarcely outnumber the gallery at a ladies' weekly blind-bogey tournament in Provo, Utah. But Chi Chi has played well enough in 1964 to rank ninth on the money-winning list with $35,610, to have won two tournaments (Denver and San Francisco) in the last 11 months, to have barely missed winning three other tournaments this year, to have written a popular pamphlet called Chi-Chi's Golf Secret that sells for $2 and attempts to tell how to get more distance from your shots, and to have become the No. 1 irritant to his fellow pros.

"Personally, I like him," says Arnold Palmer, "but I think a little of his clowning around goes a long way."

Says Jack Nicklaus, "You've certainly got to respect Chi Chi's ability. For a little man he can sure hit it. He hits a low, boring kind of ball that gets past me on a lot of flat, hard, into-the-wind fairways. I do think his cutting up has a tendency to bother some of the players who have trouble concentrating, but I realize we need Chi Chi's kind of color in the game."

"I'm one of the ones he bothers," says Johnny Pott, frankly. "I'd just rather not be paired with him."

Bob Rosburg, who has an undeserved reputation as one of the tour's notable grumps, had a showdown with Chi Chi at this year's Whitemarsh Open in Philadelphia. The subject was dancing.

"It was nothing," said Rosburg. "We just had a little talk. Chi Chi doesn't bother anyone intentionally. But when you throw down your hat and dance on the greens, you leave spike marks for guys who haven't putted yet."

Says Dave Marr, "I've got tremendous respect for him. A lot of us came from no money, but Chi Chi really came up the hard way. Still, I don't approve of his actions, and I'd just rather not be paired with him."

Detached from the clowning, Chi Chi's game draws nothing but praise from his contemporaries.

"He has a way of getting everything into a shot," says Mason Rudolph. "When he turns that 'secret' loose, he's getting his whole body into the ball, left side, right side, all of it."

"Of course," says Ernie Vossler, "one drawback to his style is that he's got to let one go every now and then, and it costs him. You can't dance much with those 78s."

No one agrees more than Chi Chi.

"I still don't know how to win," he says. "In San Antonio this spring I hit the wrong club on the last hole, missed the green by a few inches and lost the tournament by one shot. In New Orleans I hit out of bounds twice in the last round and lost by one shot. In Houston I three-putted three of the last five holes and lost by two. And the only reason I won in San Francisco is because I didn't know I was going to win."

Nor does anyone take the criticism of his fellow pros quite as hard as Chi Chi does. It can make him, all at the same time, sad, lonely and despondent. Sometimes it makes him want to quit the tour and go home to Puerto Rico. And sometimes it makes him become the Chi Chi Rodriguez that no one knows. Perhaps the real one.

When a round of tournament golf is ended, the Chi Chi few people ever see takes over. While the other players go directly to the locker or the grill to replay the round, eat, drink and relax, Chi Chi disappears.

"There are always three places where I can find him," says Doc Griffin, the PGA's traveling press secretary. "He'll be sitting off in a lonely part of the clubhouse grounds, talking to kids. Or he'll be watching television in his motel room. He'll watch anything. Popeye, anything. Or he'll be gone to some other sports event with Ken Still."

"Ken Still," said Chi Chi last month as he sat in his room in Columbus in the Howard Johnson's East Motel and watched Popeye, "is the best friend I got. You never heard of him, but he's a great player from Tacoma who hasn't won much. We travel a lot together. He even follows me when he isn't playing. A good friend. He's a great sports fan. He's for the Dodgers and I'm for the Giants, and we really have fun."

Fun, says Chi Chi, is two things, neither of them pertaining to golf. One thing is seeing the San Francisco Giants win a baseball game in which another good friend, Orlando Cepeda, hits three home runs. The other is watching a good western movie.

"Boy, I like to see the good guys get the bad guys and take care of them," says Chi Chi. "That John Wayne, he can sure take care of those bad guys. The best movie ever made was The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I really like that movie. If I wasn't a pro golfer, the thing I would most like to be is an FBI man so I could catch those bad guys.

"Bad guys," Chi Chi says, "make the world bad for kids, and I love kids because I was never a kid. I was too poor to be a kid."

The place where Chi Chi was not a kid was San Juan, P.R., where he grew up with two brothers and three sisters and three nephews, all in the same house, and where they sometimes were hungry because Chi Chi's father worked all of his life on a plantation for 40¢ a day. It was where Chi Chi taught himself to play golf by making clubs out of the limbs of guava trees and by making golf balls out of hammered tin cans. "You could hit that tin can 100 yards if you were good," says Chi Chi.

Chi Chi, of course, became very good, and in the process developed his secret for hitting the ball into the next county, thereby defying all existing theories concerning size and distance. As he outlines the secret in his pamphlet, it is simplicity itself. There are really only two elements to it: a kind of Berlin Wall against the left side and a change of heart in the downswing. Imagine a wall, imagine your left shoulder planted firmly against it, your hip, too, and as much of your leg as you can get into a straight up-and-down left side. That is the Rodriguez stance. On his drives, once he has reached his backswing from that position, Chi Chi hesitates, then starts his downswing with a forceful pull of his left hand only. At about halfway down, he quickly reverses his thinking so that his entire concern now is with the drive he can get with his right shoulder. He whips the shoulder as hard and fast as possible into the shot and follows through. The wrists remain cocked until the change from left to right, then they snap the way Henry Aaron's do whacking a baseball, and Chi Chi gets every ounce of his 120 pounds into the swing at the place it counts most—contact with the ball.

The analogy with baseball, not always a good idea where golf is concerned, seems particularly apt in the case of Juan Rodriguez. Chi Chi got his nickname in San Juan because he idolized a baseball player named Chi Chi Flores, who played for Ponce in the Winter League. It was in San Juan that he gave some thought to trying to be a pitcher, then a boxer, anything that would help him earn money. There, too, a "rich man" gave him his first pair of golf shoes, size 14, about five sizes too large, but he wore them. And it was in San Juan that he joined the Army at 19 so he could help support the household.

"People laugh at Chi Chi for joining the Army to make money, but it was more than I could make caddying at Dorado Beach," he said. "I made $72 a month in the Army, and I always sent $50 home to my family from Fort Sill. I had one luxury, the $6 a month I paid to be a member of the Fort Sill Country Club so I could try to become a golfer. Listen, I know what it was like to be poor, and the money I made in the Army seemed like all the money in the world to me then."

When Chi Chi got out of the Army he returned to San Juan and began learning more about golf from Pete Cooper and the late Ed Dudley. "They got me out of the interlocking grip and helped me refine my game." Chi Chi became a tourist attraction for the wealthy Americans who visited Dorado Beach—the little Puerto Rican who could drive so far. Games were arranged with the rich men so Chi Chi could win, which was usually no trouble for him, anyhow. Accustomed to these arrangements, Chi Chi got a harsh reminder one day that life was still not completely a bowl of suckers. He was playing in a game with three Americans, one of them a deceptively good low-handicap player from Pittsburgh, a smiling, bespectacled man in his 50s named Patrick J. McDonough. McDonough took his golf seriously, as evidenced by his memberships in the Field Club in Pittsburgh, New Jersey's famous Pine Valley and the Thunder-bird in Palm Springs. Chi Chi and McDonough were playing a $5 Nassau with the usual presses, and McDonough kept making pars and birdies. Finally, on the 17th, just when Chi Chi thought he would square the match with a short birdie putt, McDonough holed out with a chip shot and won the money.

"This is a very bad game," said the Puerto Rican, obviously crushed. "Chi Chi is not supposed to lose to an old, baldheaded man."

The story is a favorite around Dorado Beach, and Chi Chi and McDonough consider themselves good friends today. Chi Chi, in fact, has a lot of friends at Dorado Beach, and the club is one reason he is on the tour.

"They give me $12,000 a year for expenses," says Chi Chi, "and I pay them the first $6,000 I make in prize money."

Most of the rest of Chi Chi's money goes into the bank. He has built a new house in San Juan for the family he supports—"nice bedrooms, a good yard where I can grow pretty things and a nice kitchen where my sisters can cook beans and rice"—and he has bought a Cadillac. "Not to show off," he says. "Only because I need a good car to drive to as many tournaments as I can because I hate to fly, and because I can sell it for what I paid."

Airplanes, Chi Chi firmly believes, are going to kill him eventually. They have almost driven him from the tour. "I know that airplanes got no business in the air and that all of them are going to fall down. I've hit air pockets and dropped 6,000 feet, and I've flown on only one engine when the others went out. Boy, I hate flying. I wish I could drive to every tournament so the airplanes wouldn't kill me sooner or later. But the good thing is that I got lots of insurance for my family, and they won't ever have to go hungry when the airplanes kill me."

But if there is anything that bothers Chi Chi more than airplanes, it is the disapproval of his fellow pros.

"It makes me sad," said Chi Chi the other day, sadly. "It makes me want to hide in my room and watch television and do nothing but sleep and go home. It makes me miss beans and rice, which is the best thing to eat in the whole world the way my sister fixes them. She puts about 25 different things in the beans, and that's what makes them good. I've never tried to bother anybody. All I want to do is tell the little girls how pretty they are and tell the little boys to play golf and be happy. I want the fans and the pros to like me. I enjoy playing with all of the boys, even some players that a lot of them have said they don't like to be paired with. Like Cary Middlecoff, who plays slow. He bothers some players. But he doesn't bother me. I think a man ought to play fast, but I'd rather be paired with Middlecoff than anybody because he tries so hard on every shot. I admire that. He makes me try harder. And the way you make a success on the tour is by not giving up."

Says Chi Chi, "If I can't stop bothering everybody, by being the way I am, then I'm just going to quit and go home and teach all the kids in Puerto Rico how not to be poor. That would be a good life, too."

There would seem to be few teachers, give or take a dance across a green, more capable.