Chi Chi Has A Last Laugh

Nov. 23, 1987
Nov. 23, 1987

Table of Contents
Nov. 23, 1987

The Chargers
Michigan State
Phoenix Suns
Chi Chi
Tom Chambers
Horse Racing
Dexter Manley
First Person
Point After

Chi Chi Has A Last Laugh

Chi Chi Rodriguez was once best known for his one-liners, but now his unparalleled success on the Senior tour is no joke

Nearly every day, Juan (Chi Chi) Rodriguez closes his eyes and reaches back through the years. First he sees himself as an underfed, shoeless seven-year-old struggling under the hot Puerto Rican sun to heft an ox-driven plow in a dusty sugarcane field. Then his mind's eye shifts to night: By candlelight, a barrel-chested man, exhausted from 12 hours of wielding a machete, nibbles at a plate of cornmeal and beans before giving the rest of it to the frailest of his six children, his second-oldest son, Juan.

This is an article from the Nov. 23, 1987 issue Original Layout

"I see these things," says Rodriguez, his eyes still closed as he reclines amid the flowers and tropical decor of his spacious house in Naples, Fla., "and then I see my next round of golf." And he opens his eyes and smiles.

It's a perspective, to use the golfing argot, that will definitely get you to the clubhouse. Rodriguez has never had to worry about golf's inexorable fates defeating him, nor has he needed championships to make him feel like a winner. His entire playing career, bumps and all, has been nothing but gravy. In the words of Rodriguez, golf's alltime leader in number of aphorisms per round, "The hard road is always the easiest."

No wonder his two-year march through the Senior PGA Tour has seemed so effortless. After a 26-year career on the PGA Tour, which brought him fame but only eight victories, Rodriguez joined the Senior tour in late 1985 and in '86 won three tournaments and $399,172. Not bad, except compared with this year, in which he has had seven more wins, including four in a row, and has set a Senior money-winning record of $495,745 and counting.

During the first round of the Silver Pages Classic in Oklahoma City in May, Rodriguez made eight consecutive birdies to break the Senior tour record set by Gene Littler in 1983. His stroke average is 69.96—first on the tour—and he has been in the top three in 21 of the 25 tournaments he has entered. Twice he has come from six shots back in the final round to win. In August at the GTE Northwest Classic in Kenmore, Wash., he even overcame hitting a putt out of bounds to win the tournament by a stroke. When Rodriguez is introduced to someone these days, he often says, deadpan, "Hi, I'm Clark Kent."

Rodriguez was golf's greatest entertainer back when he was among the dewsweepers on Sunday, and now he's enjoying a revival even Jackie Mason might envy. After a birdie, he'll do his celebratory sword dance, in which he uses his putter to "impale" the hole, then wipes off the imaginary blood with a handkerchief and thrusts his "sword" into an imaginary scabbard (watch your knuckles, you imitators) before limping off the green battered but unbowed. This is unsurpassed as golf theater.

And Rodriguez has always taken a shag bag full of one-liners to the course with him. It was he who called Jack Nicklaus "a legend in his spare time." Violent slices by amateur partners are "Ronald Reagan shots—right of right." He also does regional material. At the Vantage Championship in Winston-Salem, N.C., Rodriguez sensed all the Dean Smith fans around him and said, "I just saw Bobby Knight. I said, 'Bobby, have a nice day.' He said, 'Don't tell me what to do.' "

But there's more to Rodriguez than the comic. Don January, the winningest senior ever, says, "It's always been a mistake to take Chi Chi for just a clown. The man is all about beating you." For years other pros have marveled at Rodriguez's shotmaking skills. Unfortunately, they also marveled at how a player with the softest hands in the business could have such a jerky putting stroke. Then, last May at the Dallas/ Fort Worth Airport, Bob Toski, the famous teacher of pros, gave Rodriguez a putting tip, telling him to stroke with more of a descending blow to eliminate sidespin. Almost immediately, he started making putts that for more than 20 years he'd merely been trying to lag close. The result: Rodriguez has played some of the best golf of his life. "The game is so much easier when you don't feel like the only way you can make a birdie is by knocking it stiff," he says.

When Rodriguez is in contention, he starts walking with a marvelously long, rhythmic stride that would seem to belong to a man much larger than 5'7" and 132 pounds. "Ever since I was in the Army, nobody outwalks me," he says.

As he prepares to hit a shot, the features that are so elastic when he's joking with fans harden into a gaunt, sharply angled mask. Under the ever-present snap-brim panama, his blue-gray eyes, half-closed and bloodshot (due to pterygium, a chronic condition caused by spending his youth in the tropical sun), don't merely focus on their target, they pierce it. "The thing about Chi Chi is that he looks like a guy who could kill you," says Chris Smith, the golf writer for The Florida Times-Union.

Don't worry. This is a guy who couldn't dissect the frog in biology lab, which is one of the reasons he quit school in 11th grade. Rodriguez also stopped fishing after he read a book in which Jacques Cousteau described the pain fish feel when they're hooked. He still feels bad about once knocking the wind out of his younger brother, Jesus, when they were boys.

In fact, he's so sensitive to suffering that he tries to ease it wherever he goes. In 1967 he donated $5,000 of his $20,000 winner's purse from the Texas Open to victims of tornadoes that had occurred a week earlier in Illinois. This year, after winning at the Silver Pages event, he gave $10,000 of his $37,500 first prize to victims of that week's tornado in Saragosa, Texas. In '79 he cofounded the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, Fla., a counseling and education service for troubled, abused and disadvantaged children. Rodriguez makes weekly telephone calls of encouragement to some of the 650 children being served by the foundation, and about eight times a year visits the center, which has a par-3 golf course owned by the foundation that provides jobs for some of the older children. During a trip to Clearwater in October, Rodriguez was brought to tears by a large group of children who greeted him at the airport by holding up letters that spelled out WE LOVE YOU UNCLE CHI CHI. "When you give, you get back twice as much in return," he said while being engulfed in hugs.

Cynics stopped questioning the sincerity of Rodriguez's philanthropy years ago. "Chi Chi feels so lucky, is so proud of what he's done, is so thankful, that he has to give something back," says fellow pro Doug Sanders. "The sword dance, the jokes, the hat, the bright clothes, the way he helps kids and everybody else, it just comes down to saying, 'Look at me. You didn't think I could make it. But I did. In spite of everything. Now let me share it with you.' "

Rodriguez was raised the fifth of six children in impoverished Río Piedras, near San Juan. He contracted rickets and tropical sprue at age four and nearly died. The illnesses left his bones thin and hypersensitive to pressure. "If I get hit in the arm, for instance, it hurts me three times more than someone else," he says. To keep his strength up, Rodriguez still takes occasional vitamin B-12 shots. He also eats steak nearly every day.

His parents were separated when he was seven, and he and his siblings lived with his father. Though his mother lived nearby, Rodriguez's most vivid childhood memories involve Juan Sr., who worked on farms and as a dishwasher all his life and never made more than $18 a week. When the elder Rodriguez saw that his namesake was a dreamer with ambition and drive, he took to calling him El Millonario.

"My dad gave me so much confidence," says Rodriguez. "I remember I came home from a fight once, and this kid had beaten me up. My father said, 'What happened, Don Juan?' which was the formal way he addressed me. I told him, 'Dad, this boy beat the hell out of me.' He said, 'Well, son, did you back up, or did you fight?' 'I fought him, Dad.' 'Then,' he said, 'you didn't lose.' The next time I fought that kid, I beat him."

Juan Sr., who died in 1963 at the age of 73, had no knowledge of golf and never saw his son play. A few of Rodriguez's stories about his father are told with an almost vaudevillian delivery, like the one about the time his friends ran to tell Juan that his 16-year-old son had just broken the course record at the nearby Berwind Country Club with a 64, and the elder Rodriguez frowned and said, "Well, he better fix it, because I don't have any money to buy another one."

But most are told with a touching poignancy. The year Juan Sr. died, he finally asked his son to hit a ball in a field next to the Rodriguez house. "He wanted to see what a golf shot looked like," says Chi Chi. "I teed up a driver and I really crushed it. I said, 'So what do you think, Dad?' He said, I never saw it, son.' That was O.K. I still hit shots for him, and I know he can see them now."

Although he was—and is—skinny, Chi Chi knew early in life that he was physically gifted. He could hit pitched bottle caps with a stick, and when he went outside at night to swing a broomstick at bats flying around him, he didn't miss many. Today, Rodriguez entertains at clinics by bouncing a ball on the face of his sand wedge with glancing blows until the ball is spinning rapidly. He then catches it on the club face and balances it until it stops spinning. "Nobody else can do that trick," says Dave Hill, another senior pro. "What Chi Chi can do with a golf ball takes about the best hand-eye coordination I've ever seen."

Rodriguez boxed in the street for sodas until he was 15, and as a pitcher he played baseball at a semipro level with or against such players as Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Pizarro. Rodriguez took his nickname from a baseball player named Chi Chi Flores. "He wasn't the best player," he says, "but he tried harder than anyone."

Rodriguez entered the blue-blooded world of golf as an eight-year-old fore-caddie at the now defunct Berwind course. He was soon playing his own version of golf by using a club rudely fashioned from a guava branch to hit a ball made from a tin can. After he became a full-fledged caddie, he competed fiercely with his fellow caddies on the one day a week they were allowed to play at Berwind. He would show up in an old pair of size-13 golf shoes a member had given him, though his own shoe size was about a 5. "I filled them up with paper so they would stay on," says Rodriguez. "Then I put some broken glass in my pocket and whipped it around so everyone thought I had a lot of change." He told his friends that someday he would beat Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. "They just laughed," says Rodriguez. "There had never been a touring pro from Puerto Rico. They told me I was a hound dreaming about pork chops."

Rodriguez improved his game during a two-year volunteer stint in the Army that saw him win the post championship at Fort Sill, Okla. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1957 and was hired as the caddie master at the new Dorado Beach resort. There he came under the tutelage of pro Pete Cooper, a winner of 10 PGA events who was still playing the Tour occasionally. Cooper immediately changed Rodriguez's caddie-yard grip and ordered him to practice 50-yard wedge shots until he could make them bite on the practice green. Cooper, who at 73 remains one of Rodriguez's two teachers (the other is his brother Jesus), made sure the green got only enough water to keep it alive. "That green was harder than Idi Amin's heart," says Rodriguez, "but it made me one of the best wedge players that ever lived."

Rodriguez played little tournament golf in Puerto Rico, preferring instead to measure himself against Cooper. When he began beating his mentor out of dollar Nassaus, he started thinking about playing the American Tour. "I had to play great to beat Pete out of his own money," says Rodriguez. "He could squeeze a nickel so hard he'd make the Indian ride the buffalo."

With a $12,000 stake from Laurance Rockefeller, one of the owners of Dorado Beach, Rodriguez set out with Cooper to play the U.S. Tour. His first event was the 1960 Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., where he showed up on the first tee in garb that was a throwback to an earlier era—a long-sleeved white shirt with cuff links and a necktie. After the first nine holes on Sunday he was tied for the lead. But even though he shot 42 on the back nine, he still won $450. "I never had to ask anyone for money again," he says.

As Cooper's protègè, Rodriguez was soon playing practice rounds with the likes of Snead and Tommy Bolt, masters to whom he still pays homage. His idol was Hogan, with whom he played several times in the years after Hogan's famous car accident. "Out of respect, and because of his legs, I used to repair all his ball marks," says Rodriguez. "He always said, 'Thank you.' "

So does Rodriguez, particularly when it comes to crediting people he admires for their influence on his life. His personal list of heroes might seem to jump randomly from Mother Teresa to George S. Patton to Perry Como, but it reveals an independent mind and a discerning eye. "Roger Maris was a great man," he says. "He didn't deserve the abuse he took when he broke Babe Ruth's record, but he never complained. And he died with great dignity. I think the bravest man I ever saw was Joey Maxim. He knew that his punch couldn't hurt anyone, and still he became a world champion. I love Milton Berle, because his TV show spread the gift of laughter to so many."

Rodriguez always wanted to spread laughter and happiness, and as a young pro he couldn't keep himself from cutting up even while those around him were doing their best imitations of the dour Hogan. When he made a putt, he would place his hat over the hole and send his Astaire-like frame into a one-man tango. "That would spike up the greens, which didn't exactly thrill us," remembers January. If he was playing particularly well, Rodriguez liked to have his caddie go to the 18th green and hold the pin for his approach from the fairway. "We weren't quite ready for Chi Chi," says Gene Littler. "I think he was ahead of his time." It wasn't long before Rodriguez was known as the Four-Stroke Penalty among the more taciturn pros, who considered his flamboyance something of a distraction.

Rodriguez even agrees that he is a hot dog, sort of. "I am a hot dog pro," he says. "That's when someone in the gallery looks at his pairing sheet and says, 'Here comes Joe Baloney, Sam Sausage and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Let's go get a hot dog.' " But when Arnold Palmer, whom Rodriguez still calls King, asked him to tone it down after they played together in the 1964 Masters, Rodriguez did. "If I wasn't wrong, Arnold would have never said anything," he says.

Meanwhile, there was no denying Rodriguez's talent. Despite weighing 117 pounds in his mid-20's he was one of the longest hitters on Tour, with a swing that had more recoil than the 105-mm howitzer he had been trained to fire in the Army. "It was important to me to be a big hitter," says Rodriguez. "That was the Latin macho."

Rodriguez was also bold, often recklessly so. "In those days, if you put the flag on the Titanic, I would go get the scuba gear," he says. "But golf should be 50 percent intelligence and 50 percent guts. Sometimes I let my intelligence drop to 10 percent."

Rodriguez got his first victory in the 1963 Denver Open. The next year was the finest he ever had on the regular Tour. He won two tournaments, the Lucky International Open and the Western Open, and finished ninth on the money list.

But in 1965 he suddenly and mysteriously lost his touch. Rodriguez is still not sure why, but several factors played a role. First, his father's death had left a huge void. He tried to fill part of it with a new family. He and his wife, Iwalani, a native Hawaiian (her name means "Bird of Heaven"), recently celebrated their 23rd anniversary. However, the responsibility of supporting his wife and her daughter from a previous marriage, Donnette, as well as being the financial rock for his family in Puerto Rico, often caused Rodriguez to try too hard. But his worst days came after he wrote an article about putting for a golf magazine and incurred "paralysis by analysis." Suddenly, he had no confidence, despite trying hundreds of putters and remedies that included filling his putter shaft with sand. "I got $50 for that article, but it cost me a million," he says. "I would get to the dance floor, but I couldn't hear the band."

Today, Rodriguez, who is relentlessly positive in his outlook about everything else, is a fatalist when it comes to putting. "Putting is not golf," he says. "It's the end. When you miss a short putt, it's over. You can never recover that stroke."

Although he won five more times on the regular Tour after 1964, his last victory coming in the 1979 Tallahassee Open, Rodriguez never fulfilled the promise of his early years. His best finish in a major championship was a tie for sixth in the U.S. Open in 1981. His biggest money year was 1972, when he won $113,503. Over 26 years he averaged slightly less than $40,000 a year in winnings. By the mid-'70s, most of his income, which ran as high as $200,000 a year, was coming from exhibitions and corporate outings.

Yet even when he was playing his worst, Rodriguez never became morose. "I've never known depression," he insists. Humor has always been his antidote. At the 1974 Sahara Invitational in Las Vegas, he made an eight on the 72nd hole to blow the tournament. In the pressroom he said, "I've been coming to Vegas for many years, but I finally figured out how to make a hard eight."

It's an attitude that eventually made the former Four-Stroke Penalty one of the most popular players among his colleagues on the Tour. Rodriguez's staple greeting, offered to nearly everybody he knows, is "Hello, Pards."

"Nobody is a nobody with Chi Chi," says PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen. "He shows young guys new shots, and he shows them respect. A lot of guys act according to what they shot, but Chi Chi has never been like that."

The ray of light that kept Rodriguez playing was the Senior tour. As he approached the magic age of 50, he harbored visions of burning it up. But it came as a shock to him three years ago when Nicklaus asked him to endorse a line of clubs for MacGregor Golf Company, which Nicklaus co-owns. "Jack told me he thought I could still play," says Rodriguez. "That meant a lot." Shortly thereafter, he negotiated a lifetime deal as a spokesman for Toyota. With the increased security came new confidence. "I started thinking, 'If these guys think I can be a star, maybe I will be,' " he says.

And he has been. Rodriguez's goal this year is to break Peter Thomson's Senior tour record of nine wins in a year. "I'd like to put it out there where Jack and Lee [Trevino] will have to really go to catch it," he says.

But if he never wins again, don't feel sorry for Rodriguez. Eddie Elias, who has been his manager since 1964, remembers a telling moment: "Cheech told me, 'You know, when I lose, I don't mind. And when I win, I sort of feel like I'm used to it.' "

PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONRodriguez's favorite clinic is the one he conducts for his Clearwater Youth Foundation.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONAs a child, Rodriguez fashioned "golf balls" from tin cans.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONRodriguez often recalls the days when this baseball field doubled as his driving range.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONRodriguez visits the grave of his father, who raised him and his five brothers and sisters.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONIn Florida now, Cooper still gives Rodriguez an occasional swing tune-up.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONWith a stroke average of 69.96, Rodriguez is the scoring leader on the Senior tour.PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONNo matter what his golfing fortunes, Chi Chi will continue to be a champ with children.