From the time he first fashioned one from the branch of a guava tree, Chi Chi Rodriguez was a magician with a golf club. Yet for all his accomplishments as a player, his contributions as an entertainer and a humanitarian are even greater. From the famous sword dance he breaks into when he makes a putt to the success of his youth foundation, Rodriguez has made the world a better place.
Born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Oct. 23, 1935, Juan Rodriguez was the frailest of six children and nearly died at age four from rickets and tropical sprue. His father worked long hours cutting sugar cane with a machete but never made more that $18 a week, and the young Rodriguez saw in athletics a chance at a better life. As a teenager, he boxed in the streets for sodas and was a pitcher good enough to play alongside Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and local legend Chi Chi Flores, who became his namesake.
A caddie since the age of eight, Rodriguez also had a natural aptitude for belting a golf ball when he had one, a rolled-up tin can when he didn’t. After a two-year stint in the Army, he returned to caddie at the Dorado Beach Resort and at age 17 finished second in the Puerto Rican Open. With the help of longtime touring pro Pete Cooper, Rodriguez continued to improve, and in 1960 secured a stake of $12,000 from Laurence Rockefeller, one of the resort’s owners. Rodriguez headed for the PGA TOUR, won $450 in his first event and was on his way.
"A man never stands taller than when he stoops to help a child."
From 1963 to 1979, Rodriguez won eight official events in the U.S., including the 1964 Western Open, and was a member of the 1973 U.S. Ryder Cup team. A natural showman, he quickly became a fan favorite for his habit of covering the hole with his straw hat after making a birdie, or waving his putter like a swordsman after holing a putt of any length-a routine that has grown into one of the game’s treasured rituals. His flamboyance initially created a stir among his more reserved peers, but Rodriguez toned down and then defused them with his wit.
“I’m a hot dog pro,” he said. “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.’ ” It was also Rodriguez who invented the line, “Jack Nicklaus has become a legend in his spare time.”
As a player, he was unique. Whippet thin at 5-7 and 117 pounds when he joined the tour, Rodriguez coiled and uncoiled as violently as any top player ever has and in his prime drilled out low, hot-running drives that made him pound-for-pound the longest hitter the professional game had ever seen. He excelled in his ability to improvise shots and possessed legendary talent with the wedges, particularly from sand. Rodriguez surely would have won many more tournaments had he been an outstanding putter.
Rodriguez’ career underwent a renaissance when he joined the Champions Tour. After winning three times in 1986, he had the greatest season of his career in 1987. He won seven times and set two Champions Tour records that still stand: most consecutive victories, four; and most consecutive birdies, eight. His 22 Champions Tour wins are tied for fifth most all-time.
Rodriguez has helped raise more than $4 million for his youth foundation in Clearwater, Fla., which annually brings 600 children from low income families or broken homes to a 9-hole municipal course to learn responsibility and discipline by working at the various jobs in golf. “A man never stands taller than when he stoops to help a child,” Rodriguez says. For living his life accordingly, he received the Bob Jones Award from the USGA in 1989 and was elected to the World Humanitarian Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.