It’s show time at the Meadow Brook Club on Long Island. Out on the practice tee, the little man in the panama hat, Chi Chi Rodriguez, has the gallery in stitches. “I was poor when I was starting out—poor!” he says, blasting a drive off the tee. “I mean, I had a room so small I couldn’t even change my mind.” Da-dum. Pure borscht belt, but the well-heeled crowd loves it. Chi Chi takes a few more whacks. Then a guy says, “Cheech, how old are you?” “Plenty-nine,” Cheech replies with mock sadness.
Actually he’s 51. And right now, on the PGA Seniors Tour (for pros 50 and older), he’s playing the golf of his life. For 25 years Rodriguez was a fixture on the regular PGA Tour. In that time he won only eight tournaments and earned just over a million dollars—chump change by today’s standards. “I was a damn good player who never made it as big as I should,” he says. But now, even competing against such certified all-time superstars as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, Chi Chi is on fire. This year alone he has notched eight tournament victories, including a torrid four in a row last spring. With $423,000 in prize money and nine weeks yet to go, he is the tour’s leading money winner and has left some of the bigger names scuffling for airfare.
Suddenly the little guy—all 5’7″ and 130 lbs. of him—has become a star. For that, give credit to his winning personality as much as his game tee-to-green. “Golf is show business,” says Chi Chi. “I love making people laugh.” Take today’s performance. It’s the final round of the Northville Invitational, and he’s three strokes behind Player, the leader. For most golfers that means white knuckles, clenched teeth and an unsightly crust of Maalox around the lips. But not Chi Chi. His cup runneth over with gags and one-liners. A spectator asks how he’ll play an impossible lie. He shrugs. “My name is Chi Chi, not Jesus.” After a great chip shot: “Two things that don’t last in life are pros who chip for par and dogs who chase cars.” Then he cans a 40-foot putt and does his famous saber routine: Pretending the hole is a bull and he is a matador, he slays the beast with his putter, wipes the imaginary blood off the shaft and, with a flourish, slips it into his imaginary scabbard.
As with most comics, there’s a layer of pain not far below Chi Chi’s surface. For as he says, he started out poor. Born Juan Rodriguez—he took the name Chi Chi from a local ballplayer he idolized—he was one of six children growing up in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. His father, Juan, was a laborer who never earned more than $18 a week; for Chi Chi, hunger was a constant physical ache. “Black coffee was what we had for breakfast every day,” says Rodriguez, who won’t touch the stuff now. At age 6, he nearly died of rickets and sprue, both crippling vitamin deficiency diseases. “Times were tough,” he says.
Chi Chi was tougher. When he was 7, he was earning a dollar a day plowing sugarcane fields under the blazing tropical sun. One afternoon he scavenged some wheels and lumber from the cane field and built a wagon, his dream machine. He rode the cart to the bottom of a hill one day and found himself in another world—the Berwind Country Club. There he was surrounded by well-dressed, well-fed people. “The game didn’t interest me,” he says. “The guys carrying the bags did. I knew they were making money.” So Chi Chi became a caddy. At first it was just for the money. Then the game captured his fancy. At 6 a.m. he’d sneak onto the course to practice. Sometimes he hustled his fellow caddies, and that was the genesis of his great trademark sight gag. “One morning we were playing for five cents a hole,” he recalls. “I made a 40-foot putt, but there was a toad in the hole. When he hopped out, the ball came with it. I lost the nickel.” From then on, whenever he sank a big-money putt, he would throw his hat over the hole to keep the ball from escaping.
A talented ballplayer who was once a teammate in Puerto Rico of Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente, Chi Chi kept coming back to golf. After a stint in the Army and a turn as club pro at the Dorado Beach Golf Club, he joined the PGA tour at 25. Over the years he made more friends than money. “My weakness was I was never a good putter,” he says. “I was streaky.” And his swing, then as now, has a certain kamikaze quality. He tends to slash at the ball, much like his old teammate Clemente. “When Chi Chi swings,” says his caddy, John Lynch, “it looks like he’s going to jump out of his shoes. But oh, my, those hands of his. Magic.”
Those hands are the source of his booming drives and seeing-eye iron shots. But why, after letting him flounder in mediocrity for so many years, are they suddenly helping him rake in tons of money? Chi Chi has several explanations. He starts with the simple, mechanical hypothesis: About six months ago master golf teacher Bob Toski spotted a fundamental flaw in Chi Chi’s game. “Bob told me to stand up taller,” Chi Chi has said. “At least as tall as someone like me can stand. It helped my swing and my putting.”
Then there’s the psychological: Five years ago, when Jack Nicklaus bought the MacGregor Golf Co., he asked Chi Chi if he would endorse a line of clubs. The invitation came at a time when Chi Chi’s game had gone sour enough to make him think of retiring. “The Nicklaus deal was a fantastic lift for my confidence,” he says. “And golf is really a state of mind.” Indeed golf is nothing if not a mental game. One that calls for steely self-control, unshakable self-confidence and instant amnesia when things go wrong. “Before I’d think of all the traps I could hit into,” says Chi Chi. “Now when I line up a shot, I see nothing but the fairway. Nothing but the pin.” Notes Gary Player: “I really believe that if Chi Chi had the confidence he has now, he would have definitely won more on the regular tour.”
Then there’s the financial angle: His contracts with MacGregor and Toyota have made Chi Chi “secure for life,” he says, and that’s allowed him to concentrate on his golf. Not that Chi Chi, his wife, Iwalani, 50, and her daughter, Donette, whom Chi Chi adopted, were exactly dining on black coffee until now. He owns two homes—one in Puerto Rico, the other in Naples, Fla. Admits Chi Chi: “I go in my pool, and I close my eyes and say it’s unbelievable how successful I’ve been.”
His problem is that he’s never been greedy. In that respect Chi Chi was profoundly influenced by his father, a big-hearted man who had little to give and invariably gave it. In fact he often breaks into tears when he talks of his father. “He’d be hungry,” recalls Chi Chi, “but when he’d see a starving kid, he’d give him his food. My father would tell us, ‘He needs it more than me.’ ” Now, whenever Chi Chi has to choose between a lucrative, corporate-sponsored golf clinic and a no-fee-paid charity fund raiser, he often follows his dad’s example and jumps at the latter. “I’m a mental millionaire,” he laughs. “When you have peace of mind, you have everything.”
That includes lending a hand to those less fortunate. Eight years ago in Clearwater, Fla., he started the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, a counseling and educational service for troubled, abused and disadvantaged kids. His money and his name aren’t Chi Chi’s only contributions. “He takes a personal interest in them,” says president Bill Hayes. “When he’s away he calls 15 to 20 kids a week to encourage them. When he’s here he squats down on the floor and shoots pennies with them. He’s one of them. He sees what he was in them.”
One more possibility that might explain Chi Chi’s sudden good fortune: Don’t laugh, it’s karma. After 27 years of golf—that’s 27 years of wisecracks, laughing fans, blown putts, saber dances and charity gigs—the game is giving Chi Chi back some of the joy he’s put into it. Take today at Meadow Brook, for instance. Chi Chi’s putting goes to pieces, he bogeys several holes and finishes four strokes behind Gary Player. Yet afterward in the clubhouse, he’s still making jokes, as oblivious to failure as he is to success. “Call me clown,” he says, “call me nice guy, just don’t call me collect.” It’s a line that age hasn’t improved, but when Chi Chi tells it, people still laugh. Maybe you just have to know the man. Millions of golfing fans feel they do.