Golf's good samaritan.
Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez is often referred to as pro golf's international ambassador of good will, a title that he earns on or off the course. On the circuit, Rodriguez entertains the fans with his quips and antics, his congeniality and wit. When he puts down his clubs, he is moved to undertake philanthropic projects, most of which involve helping children.
"Most Puerto Rican people by birth are philanthropists," Chi Chi says"They have a good heart. When they love you, they love you. They don't just like you."
Unlike the professional golfers who grew up in affluence, Chi Chi was one of six children from a poor Puerto Rican family. From meager beginnings he has risen to become in his early 5Os the leading golfer on the Senior Tour.
When I met Chi Chi at a fast-food restaurant during a grueling weeklong tournament, he was more than happy to speak about his motivation: Definitely, he told me, it was his father, a laborer who never made more than $18 a week-although he worked six or seven days a week and, Chi Chi said, never missed a day of work in 30 years.
Chi Chi told how his father once awakened him in the middle of the night because he heard someone trying to steal bananas from the tree in their yard. His father went outside and asked the man for the machete.
"The guy could have killed him. But he didn't," Chi Chi said. "He handed over the machete. My father went over and cut the banana bunch in half. He gave the man half and said, 'Now, whenever you want bananas and I got 'em, if you want half, you can have half.'
"So I learned from his example. I believe in helping people. I believe that if a kid needs help and I can help him financially or any other way, I will, because when a person suffers, I suffer. Why, I don't know."
Chi Chi also spoke with respect for his mother. When she was 70, Chi Chi says, he asked her why she never seemed to age. She said, "Son, I have never in my life been mad. I've been disappointed, but I have never been mad." She had strong religious beliefs and went to church three days a week.
When Chi Chi was 19, he joined the army, where he served for two years. He made $72 a month and sent $50 home to his family. After his discharge, he returned to Puerto Rico and worked as an orderly in a psychiatric clinic feeding and showering the mentally ill. Chi Chi's gentle quality made him a favorite with the patients. "That's the best year I ever had in my life because I was doing something for somebody, It gave me more satisfaction than winning golf tournaments, Of course, I wanted to do better in life, so I went into golf after that."
Chi Chi worked the night shift at the clinic so he could practice golf during the day. His love for golf began at an early age. At seven, told he was too small to be a regular caddy, he took a job as a fore-caddy. His job, watching to see where the balls fell, paid 35cts for 18 holes. One day he surprised himself and others by picking up a club and finding that he could handle it. Having no money to buy his own equipment, Chi Chi got his early practice by hitting a tightly rolled can with a guava stick.
Although his golf career began early, his real success in tournament play has been relatively recent. He joined the PGA Tour in 1960 and won his first tournament in Denver in 1963. In the following 25 years, he won only seven tournaments and a little more than $1 million. After joining the Senior Tour at age 50, however, he matched that sum in just two years. At the 1988 Skins Tournament in Turtle Bay in Hawaii, he walked away with $300,000 in winnings.
Chi Chi takes golf seriously, but he sees no reason the game can't also be fun. He has long been known for his antics on the course. One ritual that captures his style is the matador act, in which he pretends the golf hole is a bull and the putter a sword. After wiping imaginary blood from the "Sword," he replaces it in an invisible scabbard at his side. This "act" replaces an earlier one, the Mexican Hat Dance. After sinking a putt, Chi Chi would throw his hat on the hole and do the hat dance. This ritual, Chi Chi explains, had its origins when he was a child in Puerto Rico playing golf with another boy, with a five cent wager on the game. Chi Chi made a 40-foot putt but was surprised when a toad jumped out of the hole, bringing the ball out with it. The other boy wouldn't let him count the shot, and to prevent a reoccurrence, Chi Chi began the practice of trapping the ball in the hole with his hat.
After a number of other pro golfers complained that his antics distracted them, Chi Chi discontinued that routine. Now he makes sure that any colorful performances are done only after everyone else has putted. Chi Chi believes such light-hearted entertainment on the course is important.
"People don't have enough fun in this life," he said. "Most people work very hard. They work five days a week, maybe they work 50 years, and then finally retire. They go to a tournament and, you know, golf is a dull sport, very dull.
"Golf is a kind of stuck-up sport. Therefore, it's tough to be a golf fan, because a golf fan has to go there and be like a deaf mute. He can't speak, he can't even cough when a guy is hitting a shot. They have to be quiet all the time, but they pay their money and they work hard to get there, and when they come to watch, I'm going to make sure that I do something to make them laugh or make them enjoy themselves. What is life without a laugh?"
Chi Chi's generous nature is apparent on the course in his attitude toward his competitors. "I'm not jealous of anybody. I see guys like Tom Watson do real well, and I'm happy for them. They're people with destiny; they do good for our tour."
Chi Chi takes that concern for others to a more serious level off the golf course. A foundation he supports for abused children in Clearwater, Florida, is named for him. The proceeds from an annual tournament he puts on in Puerto Rico go to a children's hospital there. Chi Chi's goal is to make sure that any child needing surgery is able to get it-regardless whether he is rich or poor. He conducts golf clinics for underprivileged children. In 1986 he was given the Horatio Alger Award for his humanitarianism, a first for an athlete.
Chi Chi and his wife, Iwalani, have been happily married for 35 years. They have a daughter in her mid-20s. I asked him what he would want her to remember about him. "That I was a compassionate, good man who tried his very best at everything he did and did it with honor." I asked him if he was teaching her that trait, and he said, "She is learning." But he cautioned: "You don't teach people that. You just show it and they decide to use it or not. They live and learn. My daughter never knew me much until she took a year off from school and traveled with my wife and me. We really know each other now. I am really proud of her because she is very compassionate. That's the biggest word of my life, compassion. That's what I hope people will learn."
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|Title Annotation:||Chi Chi Rodriguez|
|Author:||McCoy, Doris Lee|
|Publication:||Saturday Evening Post|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1989|
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