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Chi Chi Feels Doubly Indebted to Arnold Palmer

November 16, 1986|TIM DAHLBERG | Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Chi Chi Rodriguez considers himself lucky to have begun playing professional golf in 1960, about the same time that Arnold Palmer's dynamic style was drawing fans and big money to the pro tour.

The circuit provided a nice income for the Puerto Rican who learned to play the game by hitting tin cans with a guava-tree stick.

In 1986, Rodriguez feels indebted to Palmer once again, this time for the senior tour that has provided Chi Chi with more than $300,000 in prize money his first year--more than three times what he won in any year on the regular tour.

"I thank Arnold Palmer for all of this," Rodriguez said. "Arnold is the man responsible for creating the excitement and the purses we play for."

Rodriguez credits Palmer with revitalizing professional golf in the 1960s, and with almost single-handedly creating an audience for the PGA Senior Tour, restricted to golfers 50 years and older. He estimates that Palmer attracts an additional 5,000 fans to each event in which he plays.

"That name will always be taller than the tallest statue," he said. "Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Mother Teresa. Those are my idols."

Rodriguez ignores the fact he's a pretty popular guy himself, drawing his own share of fans who come to listen to the quips and watch the antics that have marked his playing career.

At last week's Las Vegas Senior Classic, for instance, Rodriguez stroked putts on a practice green as a crowd stood around waiting for a laugh. He obliged them.

"I used to be six feet tall, but this is all that's left," the 5-foot-7, 132-pounder quipped.

Rodriguez is delighted to be playing competitive tournament golf again, and his game shows it. After playing infrequently over the past few years on the regular tour, he has found his stride on the senior circuit with three wins this year and earnings he never dreamed of on the regular tour.

"I play better now than I have in my entire life," he says. "The experience, the equipment, the new techniques have made me a better golfer."

Rodriguez jokes that, at age 50, he cannot hit the ball nearly as long as in his youth. He says he remembers holes he used to reach with a driver that now require a driver and an 8-iron.

Yet, in the next breath, he suggests that he was never really that good--despite eight victories on the regular tour and more than $1 million in career earnings.

"Maybe the older I get, the better I used to be," Rodriguez said. "In the next few years, my early career will get better and better.

Rodriguez likes to downplay his own achievements, preferring instead to talk about others.

"I'm just a little man who struck it big," he insists. "We're all ex-caddies out here."

Others know Rodriguez not only for his golf game but for his generosity and charity work. He says he doesn't want to talk about it because it will sound like he is seeking publicity.

Rodriguez holds a celebrity tournament each year in Puerto Rico and has raised more than $500,000 for the Pediatrics Hospital. He also gives free clinics, inviting children to take the choice seats up front.

"If you're not good to kids, you're not a good person," Rodriguez says.

Rodriguez has lost little of the color that marked his career on the PGA Tour, although he no longer throws his hat over the hole after sinking a long putt.

"Some of the players didn't like that too much," he said. "They complained that it distracted them. That's when I came up with the sword thing."

Now when a long putt drops, Rodriguez brandishes his putter like a sword, flails it as if he is fighting a bull, and finishes the routine by sheathing the putter into an imaginary scabbard.

On the senior tour, Rodriguez has few problems with his fellow players. All seem happy to have the chance at a second lucrative career and realize some showmanship is necessary to bring the fans in.

Rodriguez also likes the camaraderie that marks this organization. Although still keenly competitive on the course, the older players put it aside when the round is over.

"It's more fun out here than it was on the regular tour," he said. "We know each other. When one of us wins, all of us win."

And Chi Chi is still doing his share of winning.

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