If you’ve only recently become acquainted with professional golf, you probably know Chi-Chi Rodriguez for two things.
One, his signature matador routine (below) and two, as TMZ reported in 2010, the Hall of Famer was robbed of $500 grand in Puerto Rico.
Winner of eight PGA Tour events between 1963 and 1979, Rodriguez was also a force on the Champions Tour, where he won 22 times. With all due respect to the Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, native’s on-course achievements, however, it’s his charisma and humanitarian efforts —underscored by his rags-to-riches story—that is the real story of Chi-Chi Rodriguez.
Born in 1935, the youngest of six children, Chi-Chi Rodriguez was a frail boy who nearly died at four from rickets. His father was a day laborer, sugar cane-cutter, and cattle handler; he never earned more than $18 a week. Thus, when young Chi-Chi was seven, he went to work carrying water on a sugar plantation—a far cry from the privileged upbringing of today’s PGA Tour stars.
At eight, when he saw caddying was a better racket than his water-carrying gig, Rodriguez began carrying bags. He fashioned his first golf club from the branch of a guava tree and used a crushed tin can as a ball, teaching himself the game by imitating what he saw on the course.
He did a two-year stint in the Army before caddying again at the Dorado Beach Resort. As a 17-year-old, Rodriguez finished second in the Puerto Rico Open. One of the resort’s owners staked him in his bid to make it on the PGA Tour, and the young man whose first club was a tree branch was on his way.
Rodriguez was a beanpole, thin as a rail when he started out as a professional. He was 5-foot-7 and under 120 pounds, but he went at the ball a hard as anybody on tour. A fantastic, natural talent, ala a Bubba Watson or Lee Trevino, Rodriguez’ putting was not up to par with the rest of the game (or it frequently led him not to make par, if you will).
Chi-Chi was (and remains) a natural showman—a born entertainer who played to the galleries as easily as he played the course. He used to cover the hole with his straw hat when making a birdie, but grumbling from other pros led Rodriguez to develop an even more dynamic celebration: his legendary swordsman/matador routine.
He was always happy to deprecate or poke fun at his upbringing.
“I’m a hot dog pro,” he said. “That’s when someone in the gallery looks at his pairing sheet and says, ‘Here comes Joe Baloney, Sam Sausage and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Let’s go get a hot dog.’”
Rodriguez experienced a career resurgence on the Champions Tour, where he was even more popular as a player. As mentioned, he won 22 times—tied for seventh all time.
He’s devoted himself to charity in his post-playing years, raising more than $4 million for his Florida youth organization. The Chi-Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation brings 600 children from low-income families to a 9-hole golf course to work and learn lessons in responsibility and discipline.
“A man never stands taller than when he stoops to help a child,” Rodriguez says.
Oh, and his likeness was used for a 1978 Devo album, for what that’s worth.