Nearly every day, Juan ( Chi Chi) Rodriguez closes his eyes and reaches back through the years. First he sees himself as an underfed, shoeless seven-year-old struggling under the hot Puerto Rican sun to heft an ox-driven plow in a dusty sugarcane field. Then his mind's eye shifts to night: By candlelight, a barrel-chested man, exhausted from 12 hours of wielding a machete, nibbles at a plate of cornmeal and beans before giving the rest of it to the frailest of his six children, his second-oldest son, Juan.
"I see these things," says Rodriguez, his eyes still closed as he reclines amid the flowers and tropical decor of his spacious house in Naples, Fla., "and then I see my next round of golf." And he opens his eyes and smiles.
It's a perspective, to use the golfing argot, that will definitely get you to the clubhouse. Rodriguez has never had to worry about golf's inexorable fates defeating him, nor has he needed championships to make him feel like a winner. His entire playing career, bumps and all, has been nothing but gravy. In the words of Rodriguez, golf's alltime leader in number of aphorisms per round, "The hard road is always the easiest."
No wonder his two-year march through the Senior PGA Tour has seemed so effortless. After a 26-year career on the PGA Tour, which brought him fame but only eight victories, Rodriguez joined the Senior tour in late 1985 and in '86 won three tournaments and $399,172. Not bad, except compared with this year, in which he has had seven more wins, including four in a row, and has set a Senior money-winning record of $495,745 and counting.
During the first round of the Silver Pages Classic in Oklahoma City in May, Rodriguez made eight consecutive birdies to break the Senior tour record set by Gene Littler in 1983. His stroke average is 69.96—first on the tour—and he has been in the top three in 21 of the 25 tournaments he has entered. Twice he has come from six shots back in the final round to win. In August at the GTE Northwest Classic in Kenmore, Wash., he even overcame hitting a putt out of bounds to win the tournament by a stroke. When Rodriguez is introduced to someone these days, he often says, deadpan, "Hi, I'm Clark Kent."
Rodriguez was golf's greatest entertainer back when he was among the dewsweepers on Sunday, and now he's enjoying a revival even Jackie Mason might envy. After a birdie, he'll do his celebratory sword dance, in which he uses his putter to "impale" the hole, then wipes off the imaginary blood with a handkerchief and thrusts his "sword" into an imaginary scabbard (watch your knuckles, you imitators) before limping off the green battered but unbowed. This is unsurpassed as golf theater.
And Rodriguez has always taken a shag bag full of one-liners to the course with him. It was he who called Jack Nicklaus "a legend in his spare time." Violent slices by amateur partners are " Ronald Reagan shots—right of right." He also does regional material. At the Vantage Championship in Winston-Salem, N.C., Rodriguez sensed all the Dean Smith fans around him and said, "I just saw Bobby Knight. I said, 'Bobby, have a nice day.' He said, 'Don't tell me what to do.' "
But there's more to Rodriguez than the comic. Don January, the winningest senior ever, says, "It's always been a mistake to take Chi Chi for just a clown. The man is all about beating you." For years other pros have marveled at Rodriguez's shotmaking skills. Unfortunately, they also marveled at how a player with the softest hands in the business could have such a jerky putting stroke. Then, last May at the Dallas/ Fort Worth Airport, Bob Toski, the famous teacher of pros, gave Rodriguez a putting tip, telling him to stroke with more of a descending blow to eliminate sidespin. Almost immediately, he started making putts that for more than 20 years he'd merely been trying to lag close. The result: Rodriguez has played some of the best golf of his life. "The game is so much easier when you don't feel like the only way you can make a birdie is by knocking it stiff," he says.
When Rodriguez is in contention, he starts walking with a marvelously long, rhythmic stride that would seem to belong to a man much larger than 5'7" and 132 pounds. "Ever since I was in the Army, nobody outwalks me," he says.
As he prepares to hit a shot, the features that are so elastic when he's joking with fans harden into a gaunt, sharply angled mask. Under the ever-present snap-brim panama, his blue-gray eyes, half-closed and bloodshot (due to pterygium, a chronic condition caused by spending his youth in the tropical sun), don't merely focus on their target, they pierce it. "The thing about Chi Chi is that he looks like a guy who could kill you," says Chris Smith, the golf writer for
The Florida Times-Union