CLEARWATER — Chi Chi Rodriguez did not grow up like most of his professional golfing peers. He was raised poor in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, one of six children. Rodriguez started working when he was 7 and shortly afterward became a caddie at a local golf course.
He joined the Army when he was 19, and when his stint was over, he returned to Puerto Rico and the golf business. That's when he honed his game and started a career that ended with eight PGA Tour wins and 22 on the Champions Tour.
Though Rodriguez, 74, was known for bringing entertainment to a straight-laced game (he was famous for his toreador dance when he made a birdie putt), in the Tampa Bay area he is also known for his tireless work with at-risk youths.
The Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation was established in 1979 in Clearwater and has been growing ever since.
In its 30th year, the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy, categorized as a Pinellas County public school, has 95 at-risk boys and girls in grades 4 through 8.
Proceeds from the Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Course, off McMullen Booth Road, and the recently renovated driving range across the street go to the academy, which has helped more than 15,000 children and families.
"We started with one kid, a thousand dollars and one car,'' Rodriguez said. "And now here we are.''
Rodriguez was recently in town to celebrate the 30th year of his foundation.
Was it always your goal to help troubled youths?
I knew that somehow I was going to share with kids because I was never a kid. I've been working since I was 7 years old. I'm a workaholic. I used to be a water boy in the sugar cane plantation. Then I was a caddie, then I went into the Army. Then I worked in a psychiatrist's clinic. Then I became a caddie master, assistant pro, shoe shine boy, whatever it took. I've done it all.
I always have shared, ever since I was a kid. Even when I didn't have anything. I think I got that from my dad and mother. My mother would make a candy, we'd call it "limber.'' The kids would always say they'd pay her back, but she knew they wouldn't. My dad used to give his food to the poor kids. I'd ask him why he did that, and he'd say, "That kid is hungrier than I am." He'd eat from vines in the back yard or grow tomatoes.
I read you met with Mother Teresa, which really got you to thinking about helping others.
(Philippine) President (Ferdinand) Marcos asked me if I wanted to meet Mother Teresa or meet the pope. I said, "We'll always have another pope. There won't be another Mother Teresa. I want to meet her."
She was my idol. I try to do as much for kids as I can, but I'm no angel like she was. I think if a human being leaves the world a better place than when he found it, he is doing a good job.
So how did it happen that Clearwater became the home to the foundation?
This all happened in a jail here. A man named Bill Hayes came to me and said, "I heard you're good with kids. Why don't you come down to the detention center and talk to them?" I said, "I'll do better than that. I'll give a clinic."
The next day I did the clinic and stayed for dinner with them. Then Mr. Hayes told me later he's got to find a way to help keep the kids from coming here. He said he'd like to start a foundation with my name. The only condition was that nobody makes money. He had this old car. I had about $1,000 in cash.
I figured he'd take one kid and that would be the end of it. But the next day an older guy heard about it and he gave $1,000. Then, I'll never forget, in Puerto Rico I was playing golf with Laurance Rockefeller, Diana Firestone and Raymond Firestone. After nine holes, we sat down. Laurance was a philanthropist, and he asked me what I've been doing. I explained everything. He said, "We can get you some money for that." He gave $25,000 to our cause.
Do the kids now even know who you are?
Yes. Winning golf tournaments was good for my ego, but doing something for kids was good for my soul. What happened through golf is that I became fairly well known, and the kids could get to know who I was.
Do you play much anymore?
I don't play like I used to, and it just kills me. My skills are gone. You try to hit a draw, and it goes the other way, and you try to hit a fade, and it goes the other way. I mostly only play with dignitaries from (Washington) D.C. who come down to Puerto Rico.
This is a dream I have all the time now. I'm on the regular tour, and I have a four-shot lead playing on the last day. So I show up two hours ahead of time on the driving range. I'm hitting it well. I haven't missed a shot. So then I go to the locker room and watch some TV.
I'm paired with Tiger (Woods), and I played with him the day before and beat the crap out of him. You talk about a dream. But I'm watching TV, and then I look at my watch, and I'm late. The official won't give me a ride to the tee box. So I have to run, and I've got three minutes to start. I'm running and running, and when I get there, the guys are gone. I wake up, and I'm disqualified.
I'm dreaming that twice a week now. It's not a nightmare because I actually beat Tiger Woods and the only reason he beat me was because I was disqualified.