Chi Chi Rodriguez ranks at top of leader board in several ways

August 17, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

That Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez can strike a golf ball with precision and create numbers that make an impressive scoreboard picture have been well established. It also carries a degree of importance that he can make all the shots and even entertain with an enormous splash of showmanship.

But nothing compares to the personal qualities of this humble man from the sugar cane fields of Puerto Rico who fought off dire poverty and ultimately touched the stars. He's at the top of the leader board when it comes to evaluating character, citizenship and caring about others.

Chi Chi is naturally flamboyant, a born extrovert and at times has been an annoyance to some of his contemporaries for exceeding what they believe to be proper golf course decorum.

If they object, then it's a serious problem for them. The multitudes and the golfers who realize what a positive influence Rodriguez has been for a game that needs the spark projected by diverse personalities certainly don't mind.

His father labored long and hard in the fields with his machete and never made more than $18 a week. As a child, attracted to golf, Chi Chi would go to a baseball field, dig a hole in front of home plate and another at second base. Then he would take his facsimile of a golf club, shaped from the limb of a guava tree, and a ball he made from a compressed tin can to play his version of golf.

Ultimately, he was to win eight PGA tournaments and 22 more on the Senior Tour, which adds up to something in excess of $5 million.

And how would he like to be remembered when he puts his clubs away for the last time? "I'd like the kids of the world to say, 'Chi Chi was our pal,' " he answered. "I'd like to make a lot more money so I could leave it to help youngsters."

Yes, Chi Chi, but you already have a Youth Foundation in Clearwater, Fla., a home for youngsters with troubled pasts.

"We have 150 kids a day there, about 650 a year," he said. "Our success rate is 99 percent. We treat them with compassion and give them self-esteem. They are introduced to all sports, not just golf. Two African-Americans, one 14 and the other 11, are the best golfers for their ages in the country. The 14-year-old can hit a drive 300 yards."

How much longer Chi Chi, age 59, will continue to play is something he won't predict. But when the competitive years are over, he plans to return to Puerto Rico. With him will be an ambition that mirrors the humanitarian he is.

"I want to show all the poor kids in Puerto Rico how not to be poor," he said. "I will instruct them in golf and, as I said before, give them self-esteem. My bottom line is to teach them to be taxpayers and not tax burdens."

About Jack Nicklaus, who touched off racial reaction in an interview by saying blacks don't excel at golf because they have "different muscles," Rodriguez insisted, "Sometimes we say things that come out different than what we mean. Jack doesn't have a hair of racism in his body. Ask anyone who knows him. You might like to know he personally helped me raise $1,800,000 for my foundation for the children of all faiths and color."

Rodriguez has a weight problem. He's 137 pounds, which is 9 pounds over what he was in his first year, 1960, on the PGA Tour. His second tournament was the now defunct Eastern Open played at Baltimore's Pine Ridge and he had his best rookie payday, $1,400, for finishing in a tie with Bob Nichols for fourth behind winner Gene Littler, Gary Player and Al Besselink.

And how's this for a memory? "I had all sixes and sevens for scores 67-67-76-67," he said. "I remember the fifth hole, a slight dogleg. My ball went in a Christmas tree and I took a 4-wood and hit it about 40 yards to within 18 inches of the cup."

Why not an iron? "Because an iron causes more friction when it goes through the branches and I didn't want to use it," he said. "I was happy with the result."

It's astonishing Chi Chi, who could drive the ball for distance, was able to generate as much power as he demonstrated over the decades. He was built more like a sparrow yet never needed to apologize at the tee box. Far from it. When the subject was broached, he pointed to the areas underneath his forearms. Outwardly, they aren't much thicker than a toothpick but the muscle development is rock-hard.

Rodriguez visited Baltimore to film a television commercial for Choice Hotels International. As usual, he was his affable, story-telling self. He told how his patented sword and scabbard act evolved. It used to be he would put his hat over the hole after dropping a putt.

"Joe Dey, who was our commissioner for a time, told me I might mark up the green doing that. He asked me if I could do something else. That's when I turned my putter into a sword. The hole represents the bull so I stab the bull."

Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez, who doctors said would die as a 6-year-old from diseases of rickets and tropical spruce, has reached the summit. Now he wants to assist children by boosting them up the side of the same mountain he climbed to lead a better life.

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