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Troubled Soul

Name:

Juan Antonio Rodriguez AKA Chi Chi

Born:

Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, October 23, 1935

Titles:

8 US PGA Tour titles, 22 Senior Tour titles (two majors, '86 Senior TPC, '87 PGA Seniors Championship), inducted World Golf Hall of Fame 1992.

Scrambler

"Like most Chi Chi stories, they're hard to believe unless you saw them with your own eyes."

Chi Chi Rodriguez - Hall of Fame

 

No taller than 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds soaking wet, Chi Chi could split the fairways with 280-yard drives, hit every trick shot in the book, and finish it all off with a showstopping swordsman’s routine…

 

Everyone loves a rags-to-riches tale: A courageous upstart beats all the odds, overcoming a background of poverty, physical limitations, and issues of racism to rise from little man to larger-than-life hero.

 

Such is the true story of Chi Chi – who went from a boyhood in a tin-roofed slum shack in Puerto Rico, did odd jobs from the caddyshack to the US Army and dishwasher – to one of the most beloved colourful figures and true humanitarians in our game.

 

Chi Chi really had no chance at life except for what he made of it himself. He cut sugar cane for no more than a dollar a day as a youth, learned to hit golf balls made from tin cans with a club he fashioned from a guava branch, and honed his legendary hand-eye coordination by knocking down the bats that would fly into the shanty he shared with his siblings after dark.

 

But it was his buoyant personality that caught the attention of the Rockefeller family, who sponsored the whippet-thin caddie with the big smile to have a crack at the PGA Tour in 1960. Chi Chi made it the rest of the way himself.

When he won his first wage packet on the PGA Tour for finishing 16th in the Buick Open that year, Chi Chi said “I thought I was the richest man on earth.”

 

He became quite rich indeed after a solid PGA Tour career in the ‘60s and ‘70s against the the likes of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. But it was on the Senior Tour in the ‘80s, which he re-invented and re-popularised in the wake of those bigger, fading legends, that Chi Chi won 22 times, two senior majors, and stacks of cash.

How much of that wealth does he still have? It’s anyone’s guess, because as Eddie Elias, Chi Chi’s long-time manager, says: “He’s given so much money away, he could have been a millionaire several times over.”

 

A saint? Possibly. Chi Chi was not without flaws. He rarely saw a golf side-bet he wouldn’t take – “never play a golf round for nothing”, he says – although he would never bet with fellow hustler Lee Trevino. And some snooty pros were put off by Chi Chi’s flamboyance.

 

And despite the gilt-edged imagination that led Sam Snead to call Rodriguez one of the best pure ball-strikers ever, Chi Chi never really conquered the greens. He was so good out of the sand he would deliberately aim for bunkers, just to keep that dreaded flatstick out of his hands. How much more Chi Chi would have won – and given away – had he been a great putter, we’ll never know.

 

We almost lost Chi Chi in 1998. Eternally optimistic, Chi Chi thought he was having stomach pains when he was actually dying from a 50-percent coronary artery blockage. He’s fine now, and still doing his part for charities all over the States.

 

At one charity day, in Camarillo, California, in 1995, Chi Chi gave lessons to the kids and hit a few trick shots on the range for his enraptured audience. Then the little Pied Piper of golf dropped two golf balls side-by-side. With the first ball, Chi Chi hit a high, arcing fade; stepped forward quickly and snapped the second ball with a lower, boring draw.

 

The balls collided in mid-air about 150 yards over the range and dropped to the ground like clay pigeons.

“I can’t believe that,” said Chi Chi. “Usually, it takes me a dozen or so times before I get that one right.”

 

 “I can’t believe it, either,” said a genuinely amazed Corey Pavin, who was standing nearby.

 

But like most Chi Chi stories, they’re hard to believe unless you saw them with your own eyes.

 

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