Chi Chi’s charity
When he is not traveling to help raise money at charity, eight-time PGA Tour winner Chi Chi Rodriguez lives in Palm City with his wife of 50 years, Iwalani. They have a daughter, Donnette. PHOTO BY GREG GARDNER.
After an impressive golfing career, Palm City’s Chi Chi Rodriguez focuses efforts on philanthropy
BY GREG GARDNER
Juan Antonio “Chi Chi” Rodriguez is the first man in history to rise from Caribbean sugar cane fields to join American golf royalty. A resident of Palm City for the past 20 years, he is the first Puerto Rican inducted into the PGA World Hall of Fame.
Rodriguez has met Mother Teresa, been hosted by several presidents in the White House, talked politics with Nelson and Laurance Rockefeller and once sang a duet at 3 a.m. with Imelda Marcos, wife of his good friend Ferdinand, the late president of the Philippines.
While Rodriguez’s style, showmanship and competitive spirit on the golf course is legendary, most people don’t know about his philanthropic efforts to raise millions of dollars for charities, particularly those benefitting veterans. The Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy and Foundation in Clearwater has helped at-risk children since 1979 and is the forerunner of the popular First Tee Program found across the country.
Rodriguez has lived a storied life in the rise of golf in the 1960s, playing with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer, Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. His flamboyant style and flashy dress made him popular, and he had a quite a following.
DESTINED TO PLAY GOLF
As a child in Puerto Rico, (nicknamed after his favorite baseball star Chi Chi Flores) he saw early on that it was easier with better pay to be a caddy than pick sugar cane. Self-taught, Rodriguez fashioned his first club from a guava tree and made a ball from a crushed tin can. As he taught himself the game as a boy, he would practice flopping (from underneath) a ball from the back of the baseball backstop to land behind home plate. When he shot 62 at age 12, Rodriguez said he knew he would be a professional golfer.
Since he “couldn’t hit the side of a Greyhound bus from 100 yards,” Rodriguez missed infantry training and spent two years in the Army artillery. He then returned to Puerto Rico to work as a nurse in a Veterans Administration hospital psychiatric ward for Korean War veterans. When Eagle Marsh Golf Club asked him recently to donate his time and auction items to its Wounded Warriors fund-raising tournament, Rodriguez said yes, and the event raised almost $20,000 — four times what organizers had hoped for. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without these soldiers who give us our freedom. Anyone who has been to war is a hero,” he said.
The signature samurai sword ritual — that would make Rodriguez famous on the PGA Tour — was a substitute for a move that went back to his childhood days playing in Puerto Rico in bare feet on sandy greens. “Golf is no good if you play for nothing — like shadowboxing,” he said. “We were playing for 5 cents a hole, which was a lot of money. I made a 20-foot putt. When I went to get the ball, a toad in the cup knocked the ball out and I lost. So I used to run over and cover the hole with my hat to keep the ball in there. I had big galleries. Guys complained I was damaging the hole. They [PGA officials] told me to come up with something else.”
After that, when he would sink a long putt, Rodriguez would wave his putter in the “samurai stab” as if it were a sword in a duel before sheathing it with his unique flair.
“He was a great ambassador for golf,” said Ken Still, a 40-year veteran of the PGA Tour and travel mate of Rodriguez for five years. “He’s such a likeable guy. He is a class act and a true human being. Chi Chi was a terrific dresser with a great wardrobe. He has a great heart and loves the kids. I once saw him sign autographs for two hours. He treats kids and adults like gold. If you were hungry, he would give you his dinner.”
Rodriguez and Still recalled both the fun and hardships of the tour. Tedium was often broken up with card games.
“You would drive into a small town and the Ramada Inn would have the sign: no vacancies. It was 100 miles to the next town,’’ Rodriguez said. “So you slept in the car at a gas station and got up in the morning and brushed your teeth in the bathroom.” He once drove from Oregon to New Jersey to play in the Dow Jones Open. He came in fourth and the entire purse was $300,000 — the biggest money yet in those days while today’s winners on the PGA Tour routinely cash checks for well over $1 million. Rodriguez would later fly to tournaments on four different airplanes, but when fuel prices went to $7 per gallon, he flew commercial.
Still set up a poker game and beforehand Rodriguez — always up for a playful hustle — agreed to the betting odds of anywhere from 2 to 5-1 that he could hit a bucket (filled with ice) with a quarter from about 10 feet. “I could hit it about 9 out of 10 times and when we were done that night, Ken and I split $400 and no one had money to play poker,” Rodriguez said.
“If you didn’t play well, you didn’t make money,” said Rodriguez. “You had to beat to eat. If you missed the cut, you made nothing.” He won eight times on the PGA Senior Tour, but was much more successful with 22 wins on the Senior Tour — a concept he twice tried unsuccessfully to bring to fruition.
“Nelson Rockefeller liked my idea where the big players would receive so much each year to bring in the others and make the tour work,” said Rodriguez. “Before we could get started, he died on me. Seniors Tour was a great name, but I don’t like the name Champions Tour [changed in 2002]. Not all of those guys are champions.”
Rodriguez “had one of the greatest short games in golf ever,” said Still, who met him at the 1960 Buick Open. “He had so much talent you couldn’t count it. He wore a ladies small glove, but he could create shots no one else in the world could make. I saw him hook a shot 60 yards around a tree to one foot from the hole. I saw him hit a ball with no backswing from under tree branches 1 foot off the ground on his knees 190 yards onto the green. It was the greatest golf shot I ever saw.”
Early on, Rodriguez knew that golf club design and production were critical to success on the tour. “Ben Hogan was a genius,” Rodriguez said. “He knew everything about golf clubs. I wanted to draw him into a conversation about design, so I left him out until he said, ‘Oh no, that’s wrong.’ He starts giving me specs (for the perfect clubs) and what is wrong with club designs. I later went back into the locker room and wrote it all down, changed my clubs and I won four tournaments in a row.
“Sam Snead had a memory like a fox. He chewed out a reporter for not getting the facts right in a story about a previous round. I remember he beat me for $20 that day.”
Rodriguez’s first break in golf came when the Dorado Beach Country Club was under construction in Puerto Rico just east of his home in Bayamon. Head pro Ed Dudley gave him a job even after shooting an 86 in a round together. “I had a bad day, but I will shine your shoes, be the range boy, the starter,” he said to Dudley. “If a man like you can help me out, I could be the best player ever.”
Ever grateful for the job — $300 a month and $3.50 an hour for lessons — Rodriguez saw his future changed forever when he carefully reprimanded Dorado owner Laurance Rockefeller for having three people in a golf cart. In just three years Rockefeller had built the newest Caribbean resort where the glitterati of the day gathered for its 1958 grand opening. It was the St. Barts of its day and Rodriguez was the golf pro for many years.
Rockefeller would later say, “I want that young man to go places,” according to Rodriguez. They remained friends and he would discuss politics with Nelson Rockefeller, who preferred being addressed as governor or mister over vice president. “Would you be my secretary to the United Nations?” Rockefeller asked Rodriguez. “Whatever you need to make the country better,” he told the vice president.
Rodriguez became good friends with Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos, when Marcos was president of the Philippines. Rodriguez was there during design and construction of a golf course that took just three months for completion to meet an impossible deadline for Marcos’ birthday. During a flight over the land, the contractor told Imelda Marcos, “I will need 3,000 workers.” “You will have them tomorrow,” she said. Chi Chi Rodriguez’s name is on a half-dozen golf courses that he has designed or redesigned, including Palm Cove in Palm City.
After an invitation to play at the Floridian Golf Club in Palm City, Rodriguez drove over from Naples where he had lived for 18 years. He and H. Wayne Huizenga, owner of the Floridian and the then-Florida Marlins, hit it off and he was invited to be a member at the club. After moving to Palm City, he bought a home on the water and a yacht, settling here. “I’m like a gypsy,” he said. “I have to move. But the people here are very nice and very respectful. In life it is very hard for a little guy in stature to make it big, but here they treat me like I am 10 feet tall.”
As a lifelong student of both golf and baseball swings, Rodriguez — a former AA pitcher in Puerto Rico — asked Huizenga during a round of golf at the Floridian if he wanted his Marlins to win the World Series. “He said yes and when I told him how, he asked me if I would take a ride in his helicopter to see the Marlins and talk to a couple of his players.
“I told Bobby Bonilla to lower the bat a little and level out his swing. You are 6-foot-6 and you don’t have to hit the ball 900 feet. The fence is 400 feet away. He hit .330 after that,” said Rodriguez. “I told Jeff Conine he was too tense at the plate. You could see it in his face. ‘You are too tight. You have to relax.’ I told him to chew gum. He hit the ball after that.” The 1997 Marlins with outstanding play by both Bonilla and Conine would win the World Series.
Always watching the game of golf and the mechanics of its players, Rodriguez has some advice for Tiger Woods, who he believes will win again on the tour. “He needs to know that everyone can hit a 3-wood straighter than a driver. If he shortens his driver with more loft, he will hit it 340 but he will hit straight. He needs more camber in his irons.”
Always outspoken, the former Ryder Cup team member said the system that has kept Woods out of tournaments this year is bad for American golf. “Keeping Tiger (Woods) out of tournaments is like taking Matt Dillon out of Gunsmoke. I am worried about golf in America. We may never win the Ryder Cup again. More than 50 percent of the players on the tour are foreigners. Other countries have quotas and we should too, so our players can compete. It’s hard for Americans to make it on the tour.”
Offered a choice by Ferdinand Marcos, between a meeting with Mother Teresa or the pope at the time, Rodriguez chose to meet Mother Teresa and he would never be the same. “We will always have another pope. If she is an angel, I want you to show me,” he said before meeting with her at a Philippines airport. “When I shook her hand, the hair on my body stood up like a porcupine. She said, ‘You are rich. Why don’t you give to the poor?’ It was the greatest 45 minutes of my life. She was always my idol. She had nothing, but yet she had everything — the power of God. The new pope is that way.”
He turns 80 on Oct. 23, but the birthday celebration will be Nov. 15 at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy and Golf Course in Clearwater. The academy is adjacent to a golf course and driving range facility also used by the Boys and Girls Club and the First Tee Program, which promotes citizenship for children through golf.
In a partnership with the Pinellas County School District, the academy teaches academics and life skills each year to 95 at-risk fourth- to eighth-graders. The students get hands-on experience running the facilities and dealing with the public. The 501(c)(3) is the only foundation in the country located on a golf course with its books completely open for public inspection.
“It began with after-school programs, but we developed a curriculum for our students. We have had more than 20,000 students grow up here over the years,” said Cary Stiff, senior vice-president, with 26 years of service at the foundation. “We make the students understand and see the relevance of an education. They all want to learn how to get a job because they know that is where the money comes from. Chi Chi Rodriguez shot to stardom on the Senior Tour. The foundation went with him and we were on that same winged horse.” Asked how often Rodriguez comes to the academy, Stiff said, “Whenever we ask him.”
The credit for getting the whole project off the ground goes to Jack Nicklaus, according to Rodriguez. “Jack said we could raise a million dollars. It was called ‘Chi Chi and the Bear.’ The tournament at his Clearwater course raised all but $129,000 of the $1 million goal. I told (sponsor) Tom Daly if you hit a hole-in-one, will you give us $129,000?” Rodriguez said. “He said yes and I said, ‘Go, ahead Tom. You can do this.’ He hit the ball with a 6-iron and I looked at the shot and said it is going to go in and it did. We raised $1 million that day.”
If asked, Rodriguez will joke about his world record of hitting three balls with one shot. During a TV exhibition, he was supposed to hit the ball through a picture-frame-sized hole. The ball ricocheted off the metal stand right back into his groin. He kept his composure and even made a wisecrack about not realizing he had feeling there. “There were young girls there. I was in the Army so I tried to take it like a man,” he said.
At a recent lunch in Palm City, Rodriguez asked the waitress if the soldiers would be interested in having him visit them at the VA Hospital in West Palm Beach where she also works. He is always available and frequently travels to lend his name to charity events. “If I am going to be there, we are going to raise some money,” Rodriguez said. “Golf has been good to me. I feel so good it’s scary.” He then left a $20 tip for a $20 tab.