The putting green was his stage, a golf club his prop and the 18-hole course his partner; it may be an unlikely medium for a poor, Puerto Rican boy in the 1940s to find his calling, but Chi-Chi Rodriguez did that and more thanks to his quick hands and natural talent for putting on a show.
Standing at just 5’7” with brooding good looks, Juan Antonio Rodriguez, could have used his charm and humor to enchant the world on film or the theater. By a stroke of serendipity, he grew up next to a golf course in his hometown of Rio Piedras. As one of five children, he went to work early bringing water to sugar cane cutters, like his father, in the fields. He noticed the golf caddies working next door and realized he could make more without the intense labor and soon became a ball boy. His new job gave him a bird’s eye view of the game and how it was played. Lacking the funds to buy a set of golf clubs he made his own from a guava tree branch, his ball a tin can. Rodriguez taught himself the game. His ingenuity paid off. At the age of 12 he played and scored a 67-point game.
At 19, Rodriguez joined the US Army but never lost his love for the game. He often visited courses while on leave to practice. Upon returning to Puerto Rico he worked as a hospital orderly but continued playing eventually becoming a caddy at the same course he grew up next to. Rodriguez went pro in 1960 thanks to a gift of $15,000 from Lawrence Rockefeller, a co-owner of the golf course.
In 1963 Rodriguez won the Denver Open and picked up another seven titles over the next 17 years on the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) circuit. But that handful of wins was just the beginning. Like a fine wine, Rodriguez got better with age. At 45 years old, he joined the Senior PGA Tour and would go on to win 22 tournaments from 1986-1993. During these years he also collected various honors including the Bob Jones Award, the highest honor given by the United States Golf Association and even became the first Puerto Rican inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Yet it’s not his wins or 300 yard drives or hand-eye coordination that enthralled fans. It was his showmanship. “You never knew what Chi-Chi was going to do,” said contemporary and colleague Jack Nicklaus in an NBC interview. Initially he used his colorful fedoras to cover a hole when he scored a birdie or eagle. When other players began complaining, he developed a routine to appease and entertain everyone: his toreador dance, waving his club like a sword and sheathing it after like a victorious bullfighter who’d slayed a beast.
Rodriguez’s performance had a purpose. He once told the Saturday Evening Post: “It’s tough to be a golf fan because [a fan] can’t speak, he can’t even cough when a guy is hitting a shot. They have to be quiet all the time, but they pay their money and they work hard to get there, and when they come to watch, I’m going to make sure that I do something to make them laugh or make them enjoy themselves.”
Most important he never forgot or changed who he was to fit into a sport that traditionally had not seen the likes of colorful polo shirts and tropical hats, let alone winners who danced. “I didn’t want to be anyone else but me. I was different. Everyone wanted to be like Ben Hogan. I liked [him], but i wanted to be myself. I wanted to be Chi-Chi,” he has said.
Embracing and owning his unique talent as well as his humble beginnings motivated Rodriguez to give back to others like himself. The Chi-Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, Florida helps disadvantaged youth develop self-esteem and confidence through the sport. It has grown to include a private middle school since it’s founding. “If I can help a kid become successful in life, that’s all I ask for,” he has said. His last pro game of gold occurred in 2012 when he was an honorary player in the Puerto Rico Open.
For bringing humor, style and sportsmanship to the game of gold and doing it unapologetically, Chi-Chi Rodriguez is truly a don.