Rodriguez got his first victory in the 1963 Denver Open. The next year was the finest he ever had on the regular Tour. He won two tournaments, the Lucky International Open and the Western Open, and finished ninth on the money list.
But in 1965 he suddenly and mysteriously lost his touch. Rodriguez is still not sure why, but several factors played a role. First, his father's death had left a huge void. He tried to fill part of it with a new family. He and his wife, Iwalani, a native Hawaiian (her name means "Bird of Heaven"), recently celebrated their 23rd anniversary. However, the responsibility of supporting his wife and her daughter from a previous marriage, Donnette, as well as being the financial rock for his family in Puerto Rico, often caused Rodriguez to try too hard. But his worst days came after he wrote an article about putting for a golf magazine and incurred "paralysis by analysis." Suddenly, he had no confidence, despite trying hundreds of putters and remedies that included filling his putter shaft with sand. "I got $50 for that article, but it cost me a million," he says. "I would get to the dance floor, but I couldn't hear the band."
Today, Rodriguez, who is relentlessly positive in his outlook about everything else, is a fatalist when it comes to putting. "Putting is not golf," he says. "It's the end. When you miss a short putt, it's over. You can never recover that stroke."
Although he won five more times on the regular Tour after 1964, his last victory coming in the 1979 Tallahassee Open, Rodriguez never fulfilled the promise of his early years. His best finish in a major championship was a tie for sixth in the U.S. Open in 1981. His biggest money year was 1972, when he won $113,503. Over 26 years he averaged slightly less than $40,000 a year in winnings. By the mid-'70s, most of his income, which ran as high as $200,000 a year, was coming from exhibitions and corporate outings.
Yet even when he was playing his worst, Rodriguez never became morose. "I've never known depression," he insists. Humor has always been his antidote. At the 1974 Sahara Invitational in Las Vegas, he made an eight on the 72nd hole to blow the tournament. In the pressroom he said, "I've been coming to Vegas for many years, but I finally figured out how to make a hard eight."
It's an attitude that eventually made the former Four-Stroke Penalty one of the most popular players among his colleagues on the Tour. Rodriguez's staple greeting, offered to nearly everybody he knows, is "Hello, Pards."
"Nobody is a nobody with Chi Chi," says PGA Tour player Peter Jacobsen. "He shows young guys new shots, and he shows them respect. A lot of guys act according to what they shot, but Chi Chi has never been like that."
The ray of light that kept Rodriguez playing was the Senior tour. As he approached the magic age of 50, he harbored visions of burning it up. But it came as a shock to him three years ago when Nicklaus asked him to endorse a line of clubs for MacGregor Golf Company, which Nicklaus co-owns. "Jack told me he thought I could still play," says Rodriguez. "That meant a lot." Shortly thereafter, he negotiated a lifetime deal as a spokesman for Toyota. With the increased security came new confidence. "I started thinking, 'If these guys think I can be a star, maybe I will be,' " he says.
And he has been. Rodriguez's goal this year is to break Peter Thomson's Senior tour record of nine wins in a year. "I'd like to put it out there where Jack and Lee [Trevino] will have to really go to catch it," he says.
But if he never wins again, don't feel sorry for Rodriguez. Eddie Elias, who has been his manager since 1964, remembers a telling moment: "Cheech told me, 'You know, when I lose, I don't mind. And when I win, I sort of feel like I'm used to it.' "