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Tee it up, help a kid at Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club in Clearwater, Florida

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,
Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club
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Green fees at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club and Youth Foundation go to help at-risk youth. (Tim McDonald/WorldGolf.com)

The Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club and Youth Foundation is an excellent, scenic little Florida golf course that uses your green fees to help at-risk youth in Pinellas County.

CLEARWATER, Fla. - How many times have you played golf so badly, so horribly, so unbelievable ineptly, that you seriously thought about throwing your golf clubs in a dumpster, stabbing yourself in the eye with a fork and demanding your green fees back?

Yeah, me too - plenty of times.

That will never happen at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club and Youth Foundation. First of all, the green fees are so cheap, you'd be embarrassed asking for them back.

Secondly, you know that those green fees are going to a good cause, helping out at-risk children. So, if you play lousy, feel bad about your golf game but good about yourself as a human being. And if you're thinking about the fork thing, you're more disturbed than I am.

This whole thing started more than 30 years ago when Rodriguez, the dancing matador, had the opportunity to meet with either the Pope or Mother Theresa. According to the stories, Rodriguez chose Mother Theresa because, well, there's only one Mother Theresa.

Mother Theresa, even tinier than the diminutive Rodriguez, told him she understood he had been a poor boy who was now wealthy. Then she asked him what he was doing with his money to help poor children.

That set Rodriguez back, made him think. And those thoughts eventually led to the establishment of the foundation that bears his name.

It started out with only 14 students. Now, it has more than 500 and is the model for other charity organizations across the country. In fact, The First Tee was inspired by Rodriguez's foundation.

Along the way, the foundation has won some of the most prestigious awards in the field. More importantly, it has helped hundreds, even thousands, of children who have been abused, come from one-parent families, under-achieved in school or have been in minor problems with the law.

The foundation has a public school partnership with the Pinellas County school district for fifth graders considered at-risk and uses its educational facilities and programs to help them. With a teacher-student ratio of 8-1, many underachievers in public schools dramatically raise their grades.

"It's all about the kids," said Foundation Executive Board Member Fred Whaley. "If they are falling behind, we've got to catch them at an early age."

And, of course, there is the golf course on the grounds, which makes this the only school of its type.

Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club: The verdict

The golf course is used by the students, of course, but it is also open to the public. Don't tee off thinking you're playing a kids' course, or you'll be in for a surprise.

It is short - a par 69 - but it has a number of holes that can eat you up, like No. 9, a narrow par 4 that bends around trees with a tricky approach over water, or No. 12, with its semi-blind tee shot, or No. 18, a short par 5 with another semi-blind tee shot. The closing hole also has a blind approach if you're too far left, and most golfers will likely lay up in front of the creek if the wind is up.

It's a lovely, scenic little course with excellent conditioning, velvety greens, natural wetlands and extensive mounding that provides both aesthetics and strategy. For the green fees, which range from $18-$35, there aren't many better deals around.

"We call it the 'Little Jewel,' " said Frank Ingo, the special projects manager. "It makes you think. You can't try to overpower it, or you'll get in trouble."

St. Petersburg/Clearwater lodging

The Beach Place in Madeira Beach (www.sunhostresorts.com) is the place you want to be if you want to gaze at the broad expanse of the Gulf of Mexico after your golf game.

The Beach Place, together with Sandy Shores next door, has individually owned and newly furnished condos, from one bedroom up to three. You can lay in bed, turn your head and see the sun setting over the Gulf - and occasionally watch dolphins feeding close to shore - the condos are that close to the beach. You can also watch as boats head out to the Gulf through the channel a few hundred yards away.

They're located in Johns Pass, a little village that both tourists and locals like to visit, with all the little shops and restaurants. No need for a car here, just walk across the street.

If you're too lazy to walk or drive, you can catch the beach trolley that runs right past the front doors of the condos. The trolley can take you to Pass-A-Grille to the south or up to Sand Key.

Combined, there are 60 condos overlooking both the Gulf and a swimming pool. The condos have private balconies, fully equipped kitchens and wireless Internet access. There is also a sundeck and beachfront picnic area. Your towel is reserved for you.

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Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club - MoundsChi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club - Elevated Greens

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Any opinions expressed above are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the management.

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