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Golfers who were raised on the hickory shaft like to recall, perhaps with more fondness than they felt at the time, the fun-loving days of Walter Hagen when he wore his knickers backwards or teed off in a tuxedo at Minikahda or Skokie or wherever. They are convinced that true color went out of the game when Hagen did. The dip into the gray seas of conformity, they admit, was not abrupt. There were the individualists of the late '30s and early '40s: straw-hatted Sam Snead with the picture swing; Ben Hogan, the grim little man who stared icily at anything that stirred behind the ropes; Jug McSpaden in sun goggles; Jimmy Demaret dressed in colors so loud they swore at the greens; Ralph Guldahl, combing his hair between shots; and Horton Smith, sinking putts right and left and—horrors—admitting that he could sink them. But by the late 1950s the transformation was, in the eyes of the old fun-lovers, complete. The PGA tour had silently become a sort of postgraduate school for effete, college-exposed players who dressed alike (shirts decorated with a crocodile, baseball-type cap), talked alike ("Yep," "Nope"), considered fifth place as good as winning and the most exciting incident in any week was Arnold Palmer's shirttail coming out.
If this version of progressively automated golf was true several years ago, it is, happily, less accurate today. Despite the big-money-every-week tour of the '60s, strong personalities are beginning to emerge, and some of them are certain to create legends every bit as heady as those of the past. Like a torrent of spilled oils on a canvas, the recent campaigns have produced a whole new cast of characters that rival any before them for color and excitement. Among these players are Tony Lema, who toasts the press with magnums of Mo�t; Gary Player, the warbling South African who doubles in the twist; Ken Venturi, who has come back theatrically from Utter Despair; and, most recently (and indelicately and controversially), Juan (Chi Chi) Rodriguez, 120 pounds of trouble.
"Golf has changed," said Ben Hogan recently. "I see pictures in the papers today of players throwing their hands in the air, the putter sailing above them on the green. They look like they've been shot in the back by an arrow. No one ever did that when I was playing regularly on the tour. It used to be there were only golf fans at the tournaments. Now there are sports fans, thousands and thousands of them. And they encourage the players to be more outgoing. That's one reason at least why you've got a Chi Chi Rodriguez."
This may be the era of the Big Three, of Arnie's Army (not so uncolorful itself), the Golden Bear and Champagne Tony, but this has been the year of Chi Chi's Bandidos, of beans and rice, of dances on the greens and straw hats in the winds. The only serious question of the year seems to be whether golf has Chi Chi or Chi Chi has golf. His Bandidos sometimes outnumber Arnie's Army, his tee shots sometimes outdistance Jack Nicklaus' and his flamboyant manner and rapport with the fans have left hundreds not caring whether Tony sticks to champagne or switches to home brew. As the most controversial player in professional golf today, as well as one of the best, it matters not whether Chi Chi Rodriguez is an odd legacy from a spectacular era or a spectacular mutation of a new one. What does matter is that he is, in fact, two people, both of them well worth knowing.
The Chi Chi Rodriguez on the golf course is the only one that people really see. This Chi Chi Rodriguez is the tiny Puerto Rican with the jaunty, small-brimmed straw hat, sunglasses, cigarette and dark skin who labors to make the gallery love him. He is the player who flails into a tee shot, zooms the ball beyond larger men and then turns to the crowd and winks, "Not bad for a little man, eh?" He is the player who responds to the wild applause rising from the fringes of the greens by waving his hat and holding up both hands like a campaigning politician. He is the player who throws his hat over the cup after a putt has fallen and dances around it, almost as if the outcries of "Ol�" from his Bandidos in the throng have commanded the performance. He is also the player who can hit a poor shot into a pond and react, at least outwardly, just as entertainingly, assuring his approving followers, "Easy bogey now if Chi Chi can get the next one in the hole." And they giggle appreciatively.
At the PGA in Columbus, Ohio last month, Chi Chi explained to a cluster of his admirers as he waited to hit his next shot that he was a "hot-dog pro." Said Chi Chi, "You know what a hot-dog pro is? That's when somebody in the gallery looks at his pairing sheet and says here comes Joe Bologna, Sam Sausage and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Let's go get a hot dog." Big giggle, resounding applause.
This is a Chi Chi Rodriguez who can promote a laugh even when he studies a troublesome shot. "These pros," Chi Chi told some Bandidos in Columbus, "they write these books and tell you 100 ways to play this shot. But Chi Chi knows there's just four ways. You can hit it high, low, hook or slice. That's all." He thereupon hits a low hook and is out of trouble.
If this Chi Chi Rodriguez were a mere jokester who did nothing more, his dedicated followers would scarcely outnumber the gallery at a ladies' weekly blind-bogey tournament in Provo, Utah. But Chi Chi has played well enough in 1964 to rank ninth on the money-winning list with $35,610, to have won two tournaments ( Denver and San Francisco) in the last 11 months, to have barely missed winning three other tournaments this year, to have written a popular pamphlet called Chi-Chi's Golf Secret that sells for $2 and attempts to tell how to get more distance from your shots, and to have become the No. 1 irritant to his fellow pros.
"Personally, I like him," says Arnold Palmer, "but I think a little of his clowning around goes a long way."