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Chi Chi on children, challenging golf courses, and the struggles of change

Jason StahlBy Jason Stahl,

Chi Chi Rodriguez was talking to a group of reporters about the $100 million-plus "El Legado" golf resort he and his brother Jesus are building in Guayama, Puerto Rico. Asked about his brother's role in the project, Chi Chi said Jesus was his "eyes and ears" when he was away in the United States conducting other business. Not satisfied with that response, one reporter asked what Jesus's official title was.

"He's my brother," Chi Chi said flatly.

People who know Chi Chi wouldn't have been surprised by that kind of response. He didn't build a legion of fans and friends in his 40-plus year golf career by referring to people by their titles. Some of his fellow pros have bristled over the swashbuckling antics he often displayed after making a putt, but Chi Chi said there was never any intention of rubbing his success in their face.

"I just want to make people laugh," Chi Chi says. "They work hard all week and come to see us play, and I want to make sure they have a nice day -- especially when they bring their kids."

It's no wonder Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez can relate to people who work hard. By the time he was 6 years old, he was caddying and helping his father tend the hot, dusty sugar cane fields in his hometown of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. On the golf course, he started using guava tree limbs to whack around tin cans hammered into balls.

Chi Chi was always the smallest kid, "the last kid picked in games," he says, but his wee stature didn't impair his golfing prowess. By age 12, he shot 67. A brief stint in the army preceded his professional golf career, which began in 1960 when he was 25. Three years later, he notched his first professional victory, the Denver Open Invitational at Denver Country Club.

At 5-foot-7, Chi Chi's playing weight ranged from 112 to 130 pounds, but he still managed to periodically uncork 350-yard drives. But overall he still only averaged just over 250 yards off the tee, and one wonders if he would have achieved less success playing the PGA Tour today. He doesn't think so, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't try to do things to give him extra yardage.

"I would do anything that would get my reflexes faster," Chi Chi says. "Catch flies in mid-air, or swing a broomstick. Or try to hit bottlecaps with broomsticks with my eyes shut. Willie Mays did that and look how good of a hitter he turned out to be."

A little faith wouldn't hurt either. Chi Chi's got a lot of that. He counts meeting Mother Teresa in the Philippines and talking with her for 45 minutes as one of the biggest thrills of his life. He claims he's not an overly religious person, but he has certain strong opinions about who's in charge.

"I believe in God, but not man," he says. "I like the Pope, but I don't like guys like Jerry Falwell. Those guys are just in it for the money."

If there's anybody Chi Chi bows down to, it's children. In fact, besides golf, it's probably the one other thing people think about when they hear his name mentioned. A large part of that has to do with the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, which came about from an idea conceived when Bill Hayes, a golfer, teacher, and part-time detention officer invited Chi Chi to a juvenile detention center in Florida to give a golf clinic to detained teens. Chi Chi knew there had to be a better way to help these kids succeed, and so he and Hayes teamed with Bob James, founder of Raymond James Financial, Inc. to build the Foundation.

"Kids are the future. Behind the success or failure of each one of them is an adult," Chi Chi says. "Politicians don't give them anything because kids can't vote. Instead of just giving them a chance, I want to give them an opportunity. I've just always wanted in my life to live in a better world."

That's why Chi Chi says if there were 500 kids who wanted his autograph after a tournament, he'd sit down and sign for all of them. He plans to be accommodating to children at his new resort as well, offering them a place where they won't be rejected.

"I used to work with kids in Puerto Rico to make them really good golfers, but the problem there is that they have no place to play," he says. "The best ballplayers in the world come from Puerto Rico, but no golfers. After my resort is built, within five to 10 years some of the best golfers in the world will come from there."

Chi Chi is hoping his new resort will also be more accommodating to the average golfer. He finds it disturbing that two million new people are joining the game each year, while two million people are quitting.

"I think it's because they're not getting any better at the game," he says. "New golf courses aren't being designed for the average golfer, and aren't being designed for women either. We have to give women a chance to have a nice day, and I think we'll accomplish that because the greens at my resort will have 12 different pin placements."

But not 13. Chi Chi had his heart attack on the 13th in 1998, and, as a superstitious man, doesn't want anything to do with the number 13 again. Except for maybe 13 smiling kids' faces before him at a golf clinic.

What's in the bag?

Hogan irons, a Cosco driver, Cobra driver, Taylormade putter, Titleist, Callaway and Slazenger balls, crucifix, Indian luck charms and pennies. (He's currently deciding on what driver and ball works best for him -- "If I play better, I play more with it," he says.

Jason Stahl currently works for Medquest Communications in Cleveland, Ohio, as Editorial Manager. Prior to joining Medquest, he spent five years with Advanstar Communications as Managing Editor of Landscape Management, a trade magazine covering the professional landscaping business. He graduated from St. Ignatius High School in 1989 and John Carroll University in 1993.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • 16th birthday

    ricky dowling wrote on: Apr 19, 2009

    I am ricky's grandmother writing. Ricky is an excellent student, an excellent athlete who wanted to play basketball. However his height did not allow him a spot on his high school team.
    He is determined to be a great golfer, is on his high school team as a freshman.
    Chichi visited cape cod 16 years ago when ricky was a baby and in between hitting, ChiChi carried "his baby". Perhaps something rubbed off on ricky,
    When your new course opens I would love to send Ricky to play there if that is possible.