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Catching up with Chi Chi

Chi Chi Rodriguez and some of the kids from his foundation
Chi Chi Rodriguez catches up with some of his students at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, Fla.

Juan ‘Chi Chi’ Rodriguez, who built an outsized record in golf after humble roots in Puerto Rico, talks about the game, then and now

He is one of golf’s enduring treasures. Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, at 85, is a World Golf Hall of Fame member who still is a keen observer of the golfing scene. Though only 5 feet 7 inches and a slight 135 pounds, Rodriguez nonetheless kept pace with the game’s longest drivers of his era and perhaps was golf’s greatest bunker player. He was held back only by a putter that lagged the rest of his game.

From his hardscrabble roots in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez developed into an athlete and an artist. He could throw a baseball 80 mph and, as a self-taught golfer out of the caddie yard, hit a 6-iron 170 yards on a string or hook it 70 yards when necessary.

How good was he in his prime? Rodriguez won eight times on the PGA Tour from 1963 to 1979, and he posted four top-10s in major championships. He played on the Americans’ winning 1973 Ryder Cup team and represented Puerto Rico in 12 World Cups. In a seven-year span on the Senior Tour, he won 22 times. Similar to Lee Trevino and other players of years gone by, Rodriguez became a world-class golfer by winning with a homegrown, unorthodox swing.

Dave Marr, a former PGA champion before a noted career as a network-TV golf commentator, said of Rodriguez’s swing, “He violates pretty much every principle we try to teach out here, and all his ball does is go long and straight.”

Rodriguez was renowned as perhaps the game’s greatest showman. Among his favorite moves, he would sink a putt and then cover the hole with his wide-brimmed straw hat, to prevent the “birdie” from escaping. Upon making a long putt, he would wield his putter like a sword, flamboyantly completing the coup de grâce by sheathing his “weapon” into an imaginary scabbard. Spectators loved the antics; his fellow pros, not so much. Rodriguez believed in entertaining the fans, and they adored him.

As a young man in the 1950s, Rodriguez developed a warm friendship with my late maternal grandfather, Herb Sanger. My grandfather, a German immigrant, learned to love golf despite playing it poorly. He spent a lot of time at Dorado Beach in Puerto Rico, where he and Rodriguez became fast friends. (Rodriguez was staked by Laurance Rockefeller, an owner of Dorado Beach, to try the PGA Tour.) Given that background, I was delighted to catch up with Rodriguez recently by telephone, prompted by the recent playing of the Puerto Rico Open and thinking about my grandfather.

Rodriguez has lived in Florida for about 30 years, first in Naples, then Palm City and now in Port St. Lucie. The Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, which is dedicated to helping at-risk youth in the classroom and with golf as part of the lesson plan, remains a passion. He nonetheless remains inextricably intertwined with golf in his native Puerto Rico. 

In addition to his focus on helping youth, this elder statesman has thoughts about the current scene and his own golfing experiences.

A fabulous raconteur whose stories can be a bit Bunyanesque but always entertaining, Rodriguez offered his thoughts on a variety of golf topics:

  • Tiger Woods: “Tiger is the best of all time. And how does the Tour replace him whenever his time as a star is through? Where is our next Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Tiger? Fabulous players, with the ‘it’ factor? It worries me."
  • Doug Sanders: “Why the heck is Doug Sanders, a tremendous and colorful showman and recently passed, not in the Hall of Fame? He won 20 times on tour and was four times a major runner-up, and, like me, owner of a homegrown swing no one would ever teach, but he was magic.”

  • Today’s game: “The current crop of players are amazing, and the equipment is far beyond what anyone could have predicted. Sand play is so much easier today between the pristine conditions – I learned to play in bunkers which were sand, oil and gravel – and these super-duper wedges. Pitching and chipping out of rough today compared to my day is like night and day. Back then, you had to explode the ball. Today is much different due to the equipment and condition of the courses.”
  • Modern equipment: “Does the ball go too far and need to be reined in? Well, I don’t know about that, but these guys today are so damned good that they will go low no matter what ball they have to play. And, much more importantly, think of the fans. Fans in baseball love home runs, and golf fans love their version of watching the home run: those long, long drives. Why should we deprive them? And I will tell you this: the shaft makes the club, not vice versa. Shafts are much more important to distance than are balls or clubheads, in my opinion.”

  • The state of his game: “I don’t play anymore because my hearing is shot, and so I cannot hear what my strike sounds like. I do teach some. I have worked with Kyle Roig, a young lady from UCLA by way of Puerto Rico who I think could be a world-beater if she wanted to be. I am currently working with Jack Stracuzzi, who is a very promising high school player here in Florida.”
  • Driving distance: “I was an average hitter, not very long, as a young man. So, I went to a gym in Puerto Rico, and the trainer said, ‘Not sure how to help you, because I do not know much about golf.’ I told him he works with boxers, but does he know how to box? So, he watched me swing, and he worked me hard three times a week for six months on certain muscles. We added 75 yards to my drives. Back then, I was able to carry it a long, long way. How far? Well, I could sometimes outdrive George Bayer [a renowned long-ball hitter who won four times on the PGA Tour after playing as a lineman in the NFL], and fans loved it when I sometimes outdrove Jack Nicklaus [I once called Jack a ‘legend in his spare time’].”
  • Swing speed: “I am not really sure, but in the ’60s out at Pebble Beach, they had one of the first machines to measure swing speed. It timed Tom Weiskopf at 132 mph. But it did not record my swing speed. We both tried it again. Tom still measured 132 and mine still did not record! So, I know I was very fast, but just not sure how or why. Some things in life are mysteries.”
  • Superstitions: “In Tallahassee once for a pro-am, I went to the pro shop, looked at all the used clubs they had, and picked up a $2 putter and then a $2 MacGregor driver. Had a pepperoni pizza the night before the tournament, then shot 65 and was low pro. I ate a lot of pepperoni pizzas after that.”
  • Golf in Puerto Rico: “We prefer team games in Puerto Rico, like baseball, but we do like great fighters, and that’s individual. There has not been a prominent golf pro in Puerto Rico since me, unfortunately. This Rafael Campos could have a big impact on golf there. He just finished third in the Puerto Rico Open, which I did not attend but followed closely. But right now, not enough interest, and it’s poor down there, man. Yes, we have resorts in Puerto Rico but no real money to sponsor tournaments or youth golf; such a shame.”
  • What it would mean for the Puerto Rico Open to get its own week on the PGA Tour calendar: “Well, that could be huge, especially if Campos becomes big. Tell you the truth, though, if the PGA Tour wanted the Puerto Rico Open to be big, let me run it and be the official ambassador. I love to see golf thrive and would love to see it improve in Puerto Rico, but my needle always points to how many young people can I help.”

Chi Chi Rodriguez wears the mantle of golf elder statesman beautifully. 

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