Rodriguez remembers the hard times, so he can't say no to helping others

February 02, 1992|By Larry Dorman | Larry Dorman,Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- This is a rare moment of respite for Chi Chi Rodriguez. It's Wednesday, his only day off, and he is taking a siesta at the Sonesta. Naturally, the phone rings.

"Chi Chi," a voice says, "hope I'm not disturbing your nap or anything."

"Well, sort of," Rodriguez replies, no trace of unpleasantness in his voice. "I'll tell you, just give me a call back in a while."

Rodriguez, 56, drifts off again and, as always happens before he nods, the memories come back. He is 7 and back behind the plow in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. He is poking the oxen with a stick. "Anda, anda," he says, like a mantra. The dust is in his face. He is barefoot.

The implements he uses are different now, but the man who wields them hasn't changed much. Now it is the sun on his face, not the dust. The wind is at his back, and he flies in his own jet and rides in courtesy cars with leather seats. But Chi Chi Rodriguez never has forgotten where he came from and how he got here, another stop on the champagne-and-caviar circuit, which this time is the $500,000 Royal Caribbean Classic.

He whistled into town in a whirlwind, as he always does. The odyssey began Sunday night, after he finished picking up $120,000 in the Senior Skins Game in Hawaii. The same guy who XTC once flew all night in economy class from Puerto Rico to California to pick up a $500 appearance fee was in Jack Nicklaus' jet, zooming into Monterey from the Kohala Coast. The tailwind was strong, the airspeed was 690 mph, and he got there in four hours.

From there he hopped his own jet, a Sabreliner 60 -- "The bank owns it, not me," he says with a laugh -- and flew through the night to Fort Myers. He got into his car, drove 45 minutes to Naples, and hit the sack at 8 a.m. Monday. At 4:45 in the afternoon, he was back in his plane, to Key West for an outing for Liberty Mutual. He did the obligatory banquet with the CEO Monday night, and at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday morning he was on the practice tee doing a clinic. Then he played two holes with each group, and by 9:30 p.m. he was on his plane headed for Miami.

If anybody deserves a rest, it is Chi Chi. He is golf's version of James Brown, who is often called the hardest-working man in show business (when the singer isn't incarcerated).

Now he has arrived. Chi Chi is the hardest-working on the Senior PGA Tour. He also is the nicest. And, not coincidentally, he finally has become one of the richest.

And that has made his journey that much sweeter, from the barefoot kid in Puerto Rico, who learned about golf by swatting tin cans with a guava tree branch, to a hero on the Senior PGA Tour, the player everyone pulls for.

"I'll tell you," he says, "when I look around at how things are now, I remember how they used to be. I remember when people said, 'No thanks, Chi Chi.' Some of them said it with a capital N. But I kept going. One time I did 116 outings in a single year.

"I never turned anything down. I would go for $1,000 or $2,000. If I got one for $5,000 it was a really big deal."

For the record, he gets $30,000 for a corporate outing. Usually a chunk of that will go to the Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation, which runs a school and golf course for troubled kids in Clearwater. That school is another telling aspect of Rodriguez's makeup. It started back in the early '80s, when Chi Chi was having trouble making ends meet. He had almost nothing to spare, but he wrote a $1,000 check to get it started.

The return on the investment has been phenomenal.

"The thing that's been good about it is that 99 percent of the kids who go there make it," he says. "We have a deal with a judge in Pinellas County that when they are going to send a kid to the detention center, they send him to us first. When we send a kid back to school, they never come back to us."

About 650 kids a year come through the doors. They learn about math by figuring how much fertilizer is sufficient for a 1,500-square-foot green. They learn business in the pro shop. They learn responsibility from the members, who play golf with them and counsel them.

The success rate is amazing. The success of the school parallels, to an intriguing degree, the success of Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez. He has now made more than $3 million since joining the Senior PGA Tour in 1985. He has won 20 times on the Senior PGA Tour, the third-highest victory total.

His endorsement deals have quadrupled since the lean years. And, in case we needed another example of the lack of foresight among the Big Three automakers, here's one: Before he came out on the Senior Tour, Chi Chi went to all three, telling them he thought he'd do well as a senior and they ought to think about signing him.

They declined. But Toyota accepted. The return on their investment thousands of pictures of the little man with the big logo is obvious. Another loss for Detroit.

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