Don't worry. This is a guy who couldn't dissect the frog in biology lab, which is one of the reasons he quit school in 11th grade. Rodriguez also stopped fishing after he read a book in which Jacques Cousteau described the pain fish feel when they're hooked. He still feels bad about once knocking the wind out of his younger brother, Jesus, when they were boys.
In fact, he's so sensitive to suffering that he tries to ease it wherever he goes. In 1967 he donated $5,000 of his $20,000 winner's purse from the Texas Open to victims of tornadoes that had occurred a week earlier in Illinois. This year, after winning at the Silver Pages event, he gave $10,000 of his $37,500 first prize to victims of that week's tornado in Saragosa, Texas. In '79 he cofounded the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation in Clearwater, Fla., a counseling and education service for troubled, abused and disadvantaged children. Rodriguez makes weekly telephone calls of encouragement to some of the 650 children being served by the foundation, and about eight times a year visits the center, which has a par-3 golf course owned by the foundation that provides jobs for some of the older children. During a trip to Clearwater in October, Rodriguez was brought to tears by a large group of children who greeted him at the airport by holding up letters that spelled out WE LOVE YOU UNCLE CHI CHI. "When you give, you get back twice as much in return," he said while being engulfed in hugs.
Cynics stopped questioning the sincerity of Rodriguez's philanthropy years ago. "Chi Chi feels so lucky, is so proud of what he's done, is so thankful, that he has to give something back," says fellow pro Doug Sanders. "The sword dance, the jokes, the hat, the bright clothes, the way he helps kids and everybody else, it just comes down to saying, 'Look at me. You didn't think I could make it. But I did. In spite of everything. Now let me share it with you.' "
Rodriguez was raised the fifth of six children in impoverished R�o Piedras, near San Juan. He contracted rickets and tropical sprue at age four and nearly died. The illnesses left his bones thin and hypersensitive to pressure. "If I get hit in the arm, for instance, it hurts me three times more than someone else," he says. To keep his strength up, Rodriguez still takes occasional vitamin B-12 shots. He also eats steak nearly every day.
His parents were separated when he was seven, and he and his siblings lived with his father. Though his mother lived nearby, Rodriguez's most vivid childhood memories involve Juan Sr., who worked on farms and as a dishwasher all his life and never made more than $18 a week. When the elder Rodriguez saw that his namesake was a dreamer with ambition and drive, he took to calling him El Millonario.
"My dad gave me so much confidence," says Rodriguez. "I remember I came home from a fight once, and this kid had beaten me up. My father said, 'What happened, Don Juan?' which was the formal way he addressed me. I told him, 'Dad, this boy beat the hell out of me.' He said, 'Well, son, did you back up, or did you fight?' 'I fought him, Dad.' 'Then,' he said, 'you didn't lose.' The next time I fought that kid, I beat him."
Juan Sr., who died in 1963 at the age of 73, had no knowledge of golf and never saw his son play. A few of Rodriguez's stories about his father are told with an almost vaudevillian delivery, like the one about the time his friends ran to tell Juan that his 16-year-old son had just broken the course record at the nearby Berwind Country Club with a 64, and the elder Rodriguez frowned and said, "Well, he better fix it, because I don't have any money to buy another one."
But most are told with a touching poignancy. The year Juan Sr. died, he finally asked his son to hit a ball in a field next to the Rodriguez house. "He wanted to see what a golf shot looked like," says Chi Chi. "I teed up a driver and I really crushed it. I said, 'So what do you think, Dad?' He said, I never saw it, son.' That was O.K. I still hit shots for him, and I know he can see them now."
Although he was—and is—skinny, Chi Chi knew early in life that he was physically gifted. He could hit pitched bottle caps with a stick, and when he went outside at night to swing a broomstick at bats flying around him, he didn't miss many. Today, Rodriguez entertains at clinics by bouncing a ball on the face of his sand wedge with glancing blows until the ball is spinning rapidly. He then catches it on the club face and balances it until it stops spinning. "Nobody else can do that trick," says Dave Hill, another senior pro. "What Chi Chi can do with a golf ball takes about the best hand-eye coordination I've ever seen."
Rodriguez boxed in the street for sodas until he was 15, and as a pitcher he played baseball at a semipro level with or against such players as Roberto Clemente, Orlando Cepeda and Juan Pizarro. Rodriguez took his nickname from a baseball player named Chi Chi Flores. "He wasn't the best player," he says, "but he tried harder than anyone."