Rodriguez entered the blue-blooded world of golf as an eight-year-old fore-caddie at the now defunct Berwind course. He was soon playing his own version of golf by using a club rudely fashioned from a guava branch to hit a ball made from a tin can. After he became a full-fledged caddie, he competed fiercely with his fellow caddies on the one day a week they were allowed to play at Berwind. He would show up in an old pair of size-13 golf shoes a member had given him, though his own shoe size was about a 5. "I filled them up with paper so they would stay on," says Rodriguez. "Then I put some broken glass in my pocket and whipped it around so everyone thought I had a lot of change." He told his friends that someday he would beat Ben Hogan and Sam Snead. "They just laughed," says Rodriguez. "There had never been a touring pro from Puerto Rico. They told me I was a hound dreaming about pork chops."
Rodriguez improved his game during a two-year volunteer stint in the Army that saw him win the post championship at Fort Sill, Okla. He returned to Puerto Rico in 1957 and was hired as the caddie master at the new Dorado Beach resort. There he came under the tutelage of pro Pete Cooper, a winner of 10 PGA events who was still playing the Tour occasionally. Cooper immediately changed Rodriguez's caddie-yard grip and ordered him to practice 50-yard wedge shots until he could make them bite on the practice green. Cooper, who at 73 remains one of Rodriguez's two teachers (the other is his brother Jesus), made sure the green got only enough water to keep it alive. "That green was harder than Idi Amin's heart," says Rodriguez, "but it made me one of the best wedge players that ever lived."
Rodriguez played little tournament golf in Puerto Rico, preferring instead to measure himself against Cooper. When he began beating his mentor out of dollar Nassaus, he started thinking about playing the American Tour. "I had to play great to beat Pete out of his own money," says Rodriguez. "He could squeeze a nickel so hard he'd make the Indian ride the buffalo."
With a $12,000 stake from Laurance Rockefeller, one of the owners of Dorado Beach, Rodriguez set out with Cooper to play the U.S. Tour. His first event was the 1960 Buick Open in Grand Blanc, Mich., where he showed up on the first tee in garb that was a throwback to an earlier era—a long-sleeved white shirt with cuff links and a necktie. After the first nine holes on Sunday he was tied for the lead. But even though he shot 42 on the back nine, he still won $450. "I never had to ask anyone for money again," he says.
As Cooper's prot�g�, Rodriguez was soon playing practice rounds with the likes of Snead and Tommy Bolt, masters to whom he still pays homage. His idol was Hogan, with whom he played several times in the years after Hogan's famous car accident. "Out of respect, and because of his legs, I used to repair all his ball marks," says Rodriguez. "He always said, 'Thank you.' "
So does Rodriguez, particularly when it comes to crediting people he admires for their influence on his life. His personal list of heroes might seem to jump randomly from Mother Teresa to George S. Patton to Perry Como, but it reveals an independent mind and a discerning eye. " Roger Maris was a great man," he says. "He didn't deserve the abuse he took when he broke Babe Ruth's record, but he never complained. And he died with great dignity. I think the bravest man I ever saw was Joey Maxim. He knew that his punch couldn't hurt anyone, and still he became a world champion. I love Milton Berle, because his TV show spread the gift of laughter to so many."
Rodriguez always wanted to spread laughter and happiness, and as a young pro he couldn't keep himself from cutting up even while those around him were doing their best imitations of the dour Hogan. When he made a putt, he would place his hat over the hole and send his Astaire-like frame into a one-man tango. "That would spike up the greens, which didn't exactly thrill us," remembers January. If he was playing particularly well, Rodriguez liked to have his caddie go to the 18th green and hold the pin for his approach from the fairway. "We weren't quite ready for Chi Chi," says Gene Littler. "I think he was ahead of his time." It wasn't long before Rodriguez was known as the Four-Stroke Penalty among the more taciturn pros, who considered his flamboyance something of a distraction.
Rodriguez even agrees that he is a hot dog, sort of. "I am a hot dog pro," he says. "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.' " But when Arnold Palmer, whom Rodriguez still calls King, asked him to tone it down after they played together in the 1964 Masters, Rodriguez did. "If I wasn't wrong, Arnold would have never said anything," he says.
Meanwhile, there was no denying Rodriguez's talent. Despite weighing 117 pounds in his mid-20's he was one of the longest hitters on Tour, with a swing that had more recoil than the 105-mm howitzer he had been trained to fire in the Army. "It was important to me to be a big hitter," says Rodriguez. "That was the Latin macho."
Rodriguez was also bold, often recklessly so. "In those days, if you put the flag on the Titanic, I would go get the scuba gear," he says. "But golf should be 50 percent intelligence and 50 percent guts. Sometimes I let my intelligence drop to 10 percent."