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.