Commentary

Family roots set strong foundation for Hall of Famer Rodriguez

Originally Published: October 7, 2008
By George J. Tanber | Special to ESPN.com

Four years ago, Chi Chi Rodriguez thought he was going to die.

Not from any malady, but from boredom.

[+] EnlargeChi Chi Rodriguez
AP Photo/Elise AmendolaChi Chi Rodriguez was well known for using his putter as a sword. But his original routine was to toss his hat on top of the hole after a birdie. That drew criticism from other players, so Rodriguez changed his now-famous bit of showmanship.
After a 44-year run, his golf career tanked, as it usually does for 68-year-old pros. In his last year on the Champions Tour in 2004, his stroke average reached 79 and he made $4,000. The man in the Panama hat known for his matador routine after every birdie, during which he would wield his putter as a sword, could no longer give his many fans reason to cheer.

In typical Chi Chi fashion, the 72-year-old's explanation is straightforward, heartfelt and, of course, includes a punch line.

"The people, since I came out on tour, I always gave them a good time," he said. "They used to laugh with me. And, then, the last two, three years when I was on tour, they started crying for me. I saw on their faces that my fans were suffering and I said, 'You know what, it's time to go.' I couldn't give them the good time they paid to watch."

"I knew I was done when I was pulling out my sword for bogies," he added.

Rodriguez returned to his native Puerto Rico. In the morning, he walked the beach in Dorado. Later, at home, he'd sit all afternoon tracking his investments on TV.

One day he told his wife of 38 years, Iwalani, "I don't have a reason to get up anymore. And I don't have a reason to go to bed. I'm going to die."

Knowing Chi Chi as she did, Iwalani had the perfect response: "Let's build a golf course."

So Rodriguez cashed in his stocks, found a partner and built his course on 285 acres on the south coast of Guayama. El Legado Golf Resort, open three years now, keeps Chi Chi plenty busy, curtailing all talk of his demise.

Asked how he feels about this considerable achievement, he gives another typical Chi Chi response.

"This is not great for my ego because I don't care what people say one way or the other," he said. "What makes me happy is when people play 18 and they say they want to sign up and play 18 more. That means they like the golf course and will keep coming back. As far as for me, as a man, what I'm happy about is that I have something to do."

Rodriguez has been tracking developments on the course conditions from the clubhouse two days after a fluke storm dumped 24 inches of rain on the island Sept. 22. But Chi Chi is as shrewd as he is an engaging quipster.

When he designed the course, he earmarked a large chunk of his capital for proper drainage.

"I said, 'It has to drain good, you know.'"

So despite the deluge, the course is almost ready for play, making Chi Chi feel good about his decision.

For now, the course is breaking even. But within two years, a hotel and casino will be added to the condo development and golf school, turning El Legado into a destination resort.

"That's when it's going to take off," said the always-confident Chi Chi.

Imagine talking about a $100 million project in a place where your first job, at age 7, had you running water to sugar cane laborers for $1 a day. To understand the man, not just the golfer, it's imperative to know where his journey began.

[+] EnlargeChi Chi Rodriguez
Scott Clarke/WireImageDuring his lengthy career in professional golf, Chi Chi Rodriguez won 30 tournaments including 22 on the Champions Tour.
Chi Chi, whose given name is Juan, was one of six children born to a laborer and housekeeper in the San Juan district in north Puerto Rico. The Rodriguez family had nothing. Yet everything.

"Tough times bring people together," he said. "We were a close family; it was beautiful."

Rodriguez went from water boy to churning soil with an ox, whom he named Juan. One day, he and his brother wandered over to a nearby private golf course. His brother returned to the sugar cane field. Chi Chi never did. He signed up as a forecaddie. Two years later, when he was 9, the club ran out of caddies one day and a member named Mr. Teale recruited Chi Chi to carry his bag.

"I've been waiting two years for this," he told Mr. Teale.

He earned 25 cents that day.

By then, Chi Chi had crafted a club out of a guava limb and was hitting balls made from tin cans into holes dug at home plate and second base at a nearby ball field. Mr. Teale, whom Chi Chi continued to caddie for, eventually lent him his clubs. With those sticks, Chi Chi shot a 67 when he was 12.

By the time Rodriguez joined the U.S. Army, he was a better-than-scratch golfer and had a 90-plus mph fastball in the other game he loved. He viewed either sport as an opportunity to escape poverty. But after watching minor league slugger Daryl Spencer, who later played second base for the San Francisco Giants, whack balls one day, Chi Chi came to a conclusion: "If this guy hits a line drive at me, he's going to kill me. So I quit playing ball and kept going to the golf course. It might have been the best thing I ever did."

Chi Chi did get one thing out of baseball: As a youngster he took as a moniker the name of his favorite Puerto Rican ballplayer, Chi Chi Flores.

Aided by Ed Dudley, the head pro at the Dorado course where he honed his game -- Dudley was also a former PGA president and Augusta National pro -- Rodriguez joined the PGA Tour in 1960. Standing 5-foot-7 and weighing barely 120 pounds, Chi Chi turned heads with his then-prodigious 250-yard drives and a pair of quick and nimble hands. He finished 16th in his first tournament, the Buick Open Invitational, and won $465. The next week, at the Eastern Open in Baltimore, Chi Chi was in contention all weekend. Like most great golfers, he remembers most of his significant shots and all of his important scores -- no matter the age of the accomplishment.

"I shot 67, 67, 76, 67 and won $1,400," he said of the event that occurred 48 years ago. "I thought I was the richest man on Earth."

At the time, Roberto De Vicenzo was the only notable Hispanic golfer and he only played the U.S. tour part-time, for he preferred the global game. To this day, Rodriguez is rankled that De Vicenzo has not received his due for winning 230 tournaments worldwide, more than any golfer.

Chi Chi says his ethnicity never was an issue.

Ken Still, one of his best friends on tour, concurs.

"Everybody accepted him," said Still, 73, of Fircrest, Wash. "He's got so much love in him it's amazing. There are no negatives in Chi Chi Rodriguez. He's just a class act."

As an example, Still recalls a 95-degree day in Cincinnati when Chi Chi spent an hour and a half signing autographs after his round.

"How many pros are going to do that? Only one: Chi Chi Rodriguez," he said.

The only issue between Chi Chi and some of the players were his antics on the greens, which, of course, the fans loved. He started out placing his hat over the hole after every birdie, a gimmick he picked up from his youth. Complaints from unnamed pros, who felt he was disturbing the turf around the hole, led to the matador routine, which he adopted after recalling a Spanish bullfighter with his given name, Juan Rodriguez.

Arnold Palmer, as plain-speaking as Chi Chi, says he likes the man and considers him a friend, but was not a fan of the routines. He says he understands both sides of the issue -- then and now.

"I think that it's certainly fine to have a sense of humor and to be able to look at it lightly," Palmer said. "On the other hand, when a guy is out there struggling for his life and literally trying make a living, sometimes that humor is not as accepted as everyone thinks it should be."

Palmer, who recalls first playing with Rodriguez at the Lucky International in San Francisco in the early 1960s, had no such qualms about Chi Chi the player.

"I was very impressed by his game and how well he played," he said.

Chi Chi's talent and competitive spirit earned him eight PGA Tour victories. He was more impressive on the senior circuit, where he dominated the Champions Tour in the late 1980s, winning 22 times. He was named to the PGA World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992.

Yet as good a golfer and dynamic a personality as he has been, it's Chi Chi's charitable work that has elevated his stature. A visit to a juvenile detention center in the late 1970s resulted in the establishment of the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, Inc., in Clearwater, Fla. The foundation, which operates a privately funded public school for at-risk kids located on a public golf course, has aided thousands of kids in its 30-year history, according to its senior vice president, Cary Stiff.

"The cornerstone of the program is utilizing golf to build self-esteem, a strong work ethic and stressing the importance of good education in the lives of children," said Stiff, who has worked for the foundation for 20 years.

Chi Chi, she says, has been a hands-on founder.

"He comes and works with the kids and has for 30 years," she said. "The kids crawl all over him. He's an amazing person."

Over the years, Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino have aided Chi Chi and an effective board of directors in their fundraising efforts for the foundation. Palmer is impressed with Chi Chi's staying power.

"It's been going on for a long time," he said. "What he has done and what he has continued to do is very good."

Says Still: "[Chi Chi is] not only a tremendous asset to the sport but also a great asset to society."

Rodriguez's good work also includes an orphanage in Mexico and numerous aid programs in Puerto Rico, where he one day plans on building a children's hospital. As with many of his finer attributes, Chi Chi's philanthropic path was influenced by his family. He once told a reporter: "My father would give his dinner to any hungry kids who walked by and then go in the backyard and pick weeds from the yard to eat. Everything I ever had I have shared. If you worry about giving, you will never have enough, of anything."

At the moment, Chi Chi's focus is on his resort, which includes a golf school that he hopes will produce Puerto Rico's next Chi Chi -- a challenge, he concedes.

"We don't have many young golfers," he said, pointing out that baseball and soccer remain the top sports for Puerto Rican youths.

Chi Chi's agenda is full. And that, clearly, is a good thing. As a result, the boredom that bedeviled him seems long, long ago.

George J. Tanber is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at george.tanber@iscg.net.

George J. Tanber is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com's golf coverage.