Rodriguez recently took time out from his busy schedule to discuss his life, the current issues in professional golf and the origins of his trademark celebration with Brendan McEvoy. Chi Chi talks about everything from Annika Sorenstam and the LPGA Tour to Tiger Woods and how superstardom is good fore the game. Nothing is off limits, and there's never a dull moment when Chi Chi is in the house.
FAJARDO, Puerto Rico -- Chi Chi Rodriguez learned how to play golf in the sugar cane fields of Rio Pierdras, Puerto Rico by swinging guava tree limbs at tin cans he hammered into balls.
From these humble beginnings, Rodriguez became a eight-time winner on the PGA tour and earned 22 victories on the Senior PGA Tour. Along the way, he dazzled fans with his outgoing personality and flamboyant sword-fighting celebrations after long birdie putts. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992.
Never one for keeping to himself, Rodriguez reached out to help youngsters with the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, a home in Clearwater, Fla., for troubled youths. Currently, he is an ambassador for golf in his native land, where he is opening his own golf course in March called "El Legado."
While playing host to the visitors from 46 American country clubs in the annual Ambassador's Cup, Rodriguez took time from his busy schedule to discuss his life, the current issues in professional golf and the origins of his trademark celebration.
WG: Everyone who works with kids has reasons why they do it. Why do you do so much for children?
Chi Chi: I am a very religious man. I don't believe in man, I believe in God. I see a kid with a problem and I have to help him out. I don't know why I do it. I just listen to God.
WG: What are some of the things you had to go through that other PGA professionals didn't?
Chi Chi: I had to jump a fence to play golf as a kid. The greenskeeper used to take shots at us with a gun. I don't think he was ever trying to hit us. He used to hit the trees above us with the bullets. That's one of the reasons I play so fast.
And people think that rich people have it easier. It's a fallacy. Poor people have it easier because a poor person never has anything to prove. If you're born rich, you have to prove yourself forever. Me, if I lose everything I have tomorrow, I always know I can sleep on the floor because I've done it before.
When I talk to kids I say, "Look at my life. If I made it, anyone can make it."
WG: Why did you make it?
Chi Chi: A lot of hard work, determination, desire, discipline ... and a lot of luck. If people call you lucky, that's when you know you're good.
WG: At the reception for the Ambassador's Cup in the El Conquistador Resort & Country Club, you said PGA Tour professionals have it easy these days. What did you mean by that?
Chi Chi: When I became a pro, in order to join the PGA Tour, I had to be an assistant pro for five years under a Class A PGA head pro. That allowed you to qualify on Mondays to get into tournaments. In those days, that meant we had to learn to reshaft a club, regrip a club, rewind a club in order to play on the Tour. Nowadays, if you go to college and were a good player, you get in.
WG: Do you think, with all the money that's on the line and the intense media coverage, that today's tour pros are under more pressure?
Chi Chi: They don't know what pressure is. Pressure is working eight hours a day and having no food on the table. That's pressure. But I will tell you one thing, they are better athletes than we ever were.
WG: What do you think about all the criticism of high-tech golf equipment, and how the newfound distance is supposedly ruining the game?
Chi Chi: The average golf course still plays 99 strokes per round for amateurs. And if Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia were playing with hickory shafts, they'd still shoot 20-under. They're better than we were. The guys that keep saying that it's the equipment, it's time [for them] to give credit where credit is due.
These guys work out, they have vitamin enhancements, they work harder at the game ... this is not just happening in golf -- the breaking all of the records. Records were made to be broken. I had the record at the Western Open and it stood for 38 years until Scott Hoch broke it a few years ago. I didn't complain about it. They're just better.
WG: You were always playful with the crowd. Recently, Jan Stephenson said that some of the Asian players on the LPGA Tour were hurting women's golf by not learning English and being unapproachable for the fans. Is the LPGA, and the PGA Tour, in trouble because the players are less approachable than they were in your days?
Chi Chi: The only resentment I have against the foreign players is that on their tour they only let 10 foreign players into their tournaments. In America, the whole field can be made of foreign players -- anyone can play. If they allow 10, we should only allow 10.
As for them not talking, this is the way sports are these days. Athletes go to psychologists who are telling them not to make eye contact with people because they'll want something from you. They are taught to be robot like.
To me, it's like wallpaper: Who knows how long it will last? I do know that the LPGA should be very happy to have Annika Sorenstam playing so well and bringing those purses up. And the PGA Tour should be happy to have Tiger Woods playing as well as he is. It doesn't matter what person is on top. The tours need the superstar. Take those two away and the tours would have a tough time.
When Arnold Palmer was winning everything, we were not jealous. We never knocked him. We wanted him to keep it up. This was our guy and he was keeping the purses up.
WG: But don't you think that the tours were so successful in your time because of how the players interacted with the fans?
Chi Chi: That's why I said the other night [at the Ambassador's Cup reception] that I can make a living without the pros. I can't make a living without the amateurs -- the fans. This is a fun game, and if you can't enjoy it, you need to give it up.
I don't play on the Senior PGA Tour much anymore because the courses set up so long, and I don't enjoy playing in those conditions. I'd rather play with my friends, especially ones I can beat shooting 77.
WG: I'm sure you still do your matador act when you sink a big putt. When did you start doing that celebration?
Chi Chi: I used to put my hat on top of the hole when I made a birdie. That started when I was playing a kid for five cents and I made a 20 footer. But a toad was in the cup. When the toad jumped out, so did my ball. The kid said it was no good if the ball didn't hit the bottom of the cup.
So, when I was on the tour, I would throw my hat on top of the hole after I made a birdie putt. People started complaining, saying I was damaging the area around the hole. Commissioner Joe Dye, who was a great guy, asked if I could do something else.
And the one thing that all Spanish speaking people have in common is the love for bullfighting. I don't like bullfighting. The only good thing about it is they give the meat of the dead bull to the poor people. But they [the PGA Tour] asked me to do something different, so I did the matador: The hole was the bull, the putter was my sword, I'd lure the bull out of the corner, I'd stop the bull, clean its blood off my blade and put the sword away. It was all in good fun. But I'm like Anthony Perkins, I wouldn't hurt a fly.
WG: How does it feel when you see other people imitate your matador celebration on the course?
Chi Chi: I saw this young guy do it the other day and it made me feel good. You know, the other day I made a 20-footer and the lady I was playing with asked me why I didn't pull out my sword. I said, "Ma'am, that's because it was for double bogey. Monkeys don't dance without bananas.
WG: You play a lot in Puerto Rico and you even have a new course, El Legado, that's opening in March. Why don't more people know about Puerto Rico?
Chi Chi: We need better advertising. I don't mean this as a negative to our advertising agency. But when you compare our commercials with the advertising that, say, Jamaica has, it's not as good. We have some of the nicest beaches in the world. We have what Ponce de Leon missed, we have the fountain of youth. We've had it all along. We have amazing caves underground where it's 40 degrees. Our deep sea fishing is as good as any place.
When people come to Puerto Rico, they end up stuck in their hotel. They never get out and see the island. We have a rain forest where it rains 310 days a year. If you go to the mountains in the winter, the temperature is in the low 50s -- just unheard of for this region -- and they have amazing orchid farms up there.
But they don't know that we have 20 quality golf courses. On an island this size, that's a lot of golf courses.
December 13, 2003
Brendan McEvoy spent five years with Times Community Newspapers, a Reston, Va.-based chain of 18 weekly newspapers covering the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
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