Chi Chi driven to be best and put on good show

July 07, 1991|By Gary Reinmuth | Gary Reinmuth,Chicago Tribune

As Chi Chi's go, he's the Juan, he's the only.

If Arnold Palmer is the king of golf, if Lee Trevino is its jester, then Chi Chi Rodriguez is, well, Chi Chi.

Fun-loving. Wise-cracking. Animated. Beloved. The double-dip rocky road ice cream sundae with nuts on top in a profession full of vanilla yogurt.

The Rodriguez the public knows best is Chi Chi the entertainer. The tiny Puerto Rican with "The Tonight Show" quips:

"I've always been fond of Chicago," he begins, addressing a recent media luncheon at Stonebridge Country Club in Aurora, site of this year's Ameritech Senior Open, of which he's the defending champion. "I won my first major at the Western Open at Chicago's Tam O'Shanter (in 1964). The only problem was after I won it they didn't consider it a major anymore. After I won it, Mrs. George S. May, the owner, gave me a lifetime membership there. The next day she sold the course for condos."

"Me, I'm a freak. When I get to be 60 I'm going to be a middle-aged man. I plan to die at 120 unless I get shot by a jealous husband when I'm 100."

"When I was a kid I used to dream I'd be a waiter someday at a place like this," he says, looking out at the spacious and well-appointed clubhouse dining room overlooking the Tom Fazio-designed course where the Ameritech Senior Open will be played July 19-21. "Now here I am looking at a lot."

Yes, ever since he burst on the PGA Tour in 1960, Chi Chi Rodriguez, 56, has been the cookie dough that was too small to fit the cutter, the kind of lovable, free-spirited personality a lot of people say pro golf needs more of.

From the way he swaggers down the fairway to the way he often pretends his putter is a sword to be put away after another duel on the green to the way he sings Sammy Davis Jr.'s hit song "I Gotta Be Me" as he heads off toward the next tee, Rodriguez has been one of golf's most recognizable personalities for three decades.

"Golf is show business," says Rodriguez. "We're on stage and the people are watching. We've got to give the people their money's worth."

But underneath the sunshiny exterior the public sees lies a much different Rodriguez; a fierce competitor, whose fire, once cooled, is flaming as hot as ever. Rodriguez, it is sometimes forgotten, didn't get where he is by being as easy-going about his golf game as his public persona would indicate.

While not exactly complimentary, this excerpt from an AP wire story following June 1 play at the NYNEX Commemorative senior event in Scarborough-on-Hudson, N.Y., says a lot about why Rodriguez has won a sweet $3,679,947 in his career:

"Chi Chi Rodriguez, who shot a 2-over-par 72 to fall out of contention, threw objects around the locker room after his round," read the wire story. "Rodriguez, who was grouped with ** Bruce Crampton and Walter Zembriski, complained about Crampton's slow play throughout the round.

"How can you concentrate," Rodriguez was quoted as saying, "when a guy is taking three and four minutes for every shot. Sure I'm entitled to shoot a bad round once in awhile, but I don't want somebody to cause it to happen. I'll get over it, but I'm far from happy."

In an ironic twist guaranteed to make a publicist swallow hard, the guests of honor at that recent Ameritech media day were: 1. Crampton and 2. Rodriguez.

Crampton sat at a table on one side of the rostrum, his back to the proceedings. Rodriguez lounged at a table on the other side of the room. Rodriguez arrived early, excused himself early. Crampton arrived later, stayed late. Crampton played golf that day, Rodriguez declined. In private, Rodriguez said Crampton was a great, great golfer and that he had put the incident behind him. Considering the circumstances, the day went off smoothly.

What happened in New York, though, was more interesting for what it said about Rodriguez's desire than what it said about Crampton's style of play.

"If a man plays, he ought to be No. 1," Rodriguez has said. "You ought to win. If you can't win, you shouldn't play. That's the way I feel about it."

And win he has. Four times this year. Twenty times since he joined the Senior Tour in 1985.

"I'm a better golfer now than I ever was," he says. "Part of it's the improvement in equipment. But my level of confidence is also better. I want to win 10 tournaments this year I've got four so far and to be the leading money-winner. My goal is to be No. 1."

This from a man who has been playing pro golf for 31 years.

For Rodriguez, though, there has been a price to pay. When you are as public a person as he, there is something private you most desire privacy.

Rodriguez is asked about a picture that accompanied an article that appeared a few years ago in a leading sports publication.

The story was about a famous golfer, a fellow member of Rodriguez's senior fraternity who exhibits many of the same characteristics as Chi Chi. About how in private that man wasn't what he often seemed to be in public. How he oftened preferred his own company to that of strangers.

Photographed alone in his motel room, putting golf balls along the carpet was Lee Trevino, gregarious, grinning, is-everybody-happy Lee Trevino.

Rodriguez said that for him there is a lot of truth in that image. "I think all good golfers are loners. When you're out on tour, playing all the time, you don't have enough time to be private enough. Everyone needs time to be private.

"What I try to do every Wednesday is just stay in my motel room all day long and meditate. The mind and body work on a 50-50 basis. If you have a rested body you'll have a rested mind. Everybody deserves a day off."

Even the one and only Chi Chi.

Before the Senior Tour came along and boosted his bank account, Chi Chi was a golfer on the road to well, maybe not ruin, but at least a life of clinics and corporate outings.

"I think I could have done that the rest of my life.

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