Chi Chi Rodriguez – A Golf Icon
In this article, Golf Reimagined Business Analyst Justin Lukacs delves into one of the most colorful people in the sport of golf.
Juan Antonio Rodriguez may be an older name in the world of golf, but his impact on the game will be timeless. Winning multiple PGA and Champions tournaments, his presence was felt around the golf world through both his skill and his personality. An enjoyable golfer to watch, Chi Chi had multiple facets of his game that were impressive and could shape shots in ways other golfers at the time couldn’t. Coming from humble beginnings, Chi Chi would eventually become a successful golfer, businessman, and philanthropist.
Born October 23, 1935, in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, Rodriguez never had much money. He would even joke that he drank his milk with a fork to make it last longer. Yet from a young age he showed an interest in golf. While he didn’t have the money for golf clubs and balls, he would make his own by carving a wooden stick for the club and rounding a tin can for the ball. Although baseball was his first passion, Rodriguez would have his introduction to real golf as a forecaddie in 1951 at the Dorado Beach golf club. He was only getting paid a quarter an hour, but this job gave Chi Chi opportunities to meet some of the biggest names in golf. One of these opportunities happened to be with ten-time PGA winner Pete Cooper, who took notice of Rodriguez’s natural talent and took him under his tutelage. After changing his grip and hitting wedge shots until Copper was satisfied with him, Chi Chi began setting course records and winning junior tournaments at the club. However, Chi Chi would need some money to start off his pro career. Luckily for Rodriguez, Laurence Rockefeller of the famous Rockefeller family was an investor of the course and decided to financially back Rodriguez. He was now ready for the big leagues.
Hitting the tour in 1960, Rodriguez found some success early in his career. His first win came in 1963 at the Denver open, which would kickstart his victories. It was the next year that would really define him as a contender, though. ’64 would see Rodriguez winning two tournaments, the best in his career, including the legendary match against Arnold Palmer at the Western Open. Rodriguez would go on to be the victor by a single stroke and land on the top ten money list for that year, which would be the only time on the PGA that he would crack it. He would go on to finish with 8 wins on the tour, with his last being the Tallahassee Open in 1979. While already an impressive achievement, Chi Chi’s game would really flourish on the Champions Tour. His first year on the Champions (1986), Rodriguez won three titles while finishing in the top ten at 23 out of 25 tournaments that year. This even included winning the Senior Players Championship. The next year he would return in better form, winning seven tournaments (including a back-to-back victory at the Players) and topping the money list. Rodriguez pulled together 22 wins throughout his stint on the Champion’s Tour and could have had more if it weren’t for his 1-7 playoff record. 30 professional golf victories may be impressive and showcased the skill this man had, but it wasn’t truly the reason for his popularity.
Chi Chi was known mostly for his personality and charisma both on and off the turf. Often referred to as ‘the most quotable golfer’ he was ripe with quips for almost any situation. Although he was known to struggle on the greens, some of my personal favorites have to be: “I’ve heard people say putting is 50 percent technique and 50 percent mental. I really believe it is 50 percent technique and 90 percent positive thinking. See, but that adds up to 140 percent, which is why nobody is 100 percent sure how to putt.” Along with “I never exaggerate. I just remember big.” It’s easy to see why people loved tuning in for his interviews. More than just a wordsmith, Chi Chi would find more ways to entertain the fans through rituals and routines aimed at getting a reaction from a crowd. Early in his career, Rodriguez would finish a hole by putting his hat over it so that it “wouldn’t escape” and doing a one-man tango. This excited the crowd and lent to his entertaining reputation, but it didn’t sit well with some of the more serious and dour pros. After receiving a ‘talking to’ from Arnold Palmer at the 1964 Masters, someone Rodriguez had a lot of respect for, he changed this ritual to accommodate the grumpy golfers who said he was tearing up the green. Enter his most famous move: the sword dance involved Chi Chi waving his putter in the air like a matador after making a birdie, a ritual that stuck up until his retirement and is still adored by fans.
Chi Chi had always learned from his father to help others, it was instilled in him as a kid while cutting sugar cane together. Often Chi Chi would see his father give away some food to a hungry child, even though he was hungry too. With these displays of benevolence, it’s no surprise Rodriguez would have a deep sense of helping others, especially those within his community. In 1979, he would set up the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation: a counseling, educational, and vocational training center for children ages 5-15 in Clearwater, Florida. He was apparently inspired after a prison guard brought a few juveniles to watch Rodriguez play. He went for a walk with the kids afterward and felt a connection with them as he realized they were very similar, commenting on being in the same situations when he was their age, but not getting caught. Chi Chi has spent a lot of his time and money to help children overcome obstacles, over $5 million of his own money has been put towards this foundation and he makes many calls and visits to the center annually.
While we covered most of his success in the professional golf world, there are countless other acts of entertainment and philanthropy that I simply cannot get to in one article. Chi Chi is a legend in multiple avenues of life. His driving range facility was even on the list of GRAA’s top 50 Standalone Golf Ranges in America, a list that we looked at in an earlier article. This facility features several updates to the experience that align with Golf Reimagined and our ideals for this business model. It is one thing to achieve his level of success on the PGA and Champions tours, an impressive enough career on its own, but when combined with his success as a businessman and benignity through plights like his foundation, it is clear that Chi Chi Rodriguez will always be an icon of the sport.
Fun Fact: Juan Antonio Rodriguez got the nickname ‘Chi Chi’ from Puerto Rican baseball player Chi Chi Flores. Baseball being his first passion, Rodriguez respected Flores as he was never the best player, but always gave it his best effort. This is an attitude Rodriguez would adopt while playing ball with his friends, often shouting “I’m Chi Chi!” The name stuck and he’s been known as Chi Chi Rodriguez ever since.