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Hispanic Heritage Month highlight: Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez

Aloe Suarez, Reporter

As a kid, Chi Chi Rodriguez used a guava tree branch for a golf club—never knowing the pursuit for golf would later make him the first Puerto Rican professional golfer inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.

Born Juan Antonio Rodriguez in 1935 in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, he suffered from rickets and tropical sprue, a rare digestive disease, unlike his other five siblings. Still, he kept up with his older siblings and work given after the separation of his parents.

Rodriguez watched his father work long hours cutting sugar cane. Though only surviving on $18 a week, his father ingrained hospitality regardless of their circumstances by providing his meal to those of more need than him in their neighborhood. These were acts of kindness that Rodriguez never forgot.

Rodriguez first started working alongside his father to earn a dime a day to deliver water to the field workers. He was then promoted to a dollar by digging up the fields when he was seven.

Being close to the capital of Puerto Rico, Rodriguez saw the job opportunities at a nearby golf club. He worked his way to caddie but committed himself to baseball like his sports hero Chi Chi Flores, a local island big-league baseball player.

Rodriguez played as a pitcher, leading him to play along with Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda in his teenage years.

“Every time I walked toward the mound, I would shout, ‘Look, I’m Chi Chi Flores!’” said Rodriguez in a self-published article for La Vida Baseball. “Soon, all of the kids were calling me Chi-Chi, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Soon after, he got married to his wife, Iwalani, and volunteered to fight in the Army, where he left baseball for good.

Upon returning to Puerto Rico, Rodriguez took up a caddie job at the Dorado Beach Resort but also competed in the Puerto Rican Open. There, he sparked the interest of professional golfer Pete Cooper and was taught the patient sport’s ways correctly.

Rodriguez gained respect among golf critics and players—not by his winning streak, being he never won a major championship—but through witty comments, friendly jokes, and philanthropy.

He founded the Chi-Chi Rodriguez Academy in Clearwater that teaches about 1,750 at-risk kids in fourth to eighth grade. Rodriguez sponsors multiple charity golf tournaments and has focused his efforts on providing scholarships and resources to children of FBI agents who have died in the line of duty.

“We make them taxpayers instead of tax burdens,” Rodriguez said in an interview with the Florida Times-Union. “We make them executives instead of felons. Every day, the first thing we do is pledge allegiance to the flag because if they learn respect for the flag, they can learn respect for themselves and for others.”

Rodriguez was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992 and still plays by his home in Puerto Rico while visiting Florida’s turf regularly.

___

For more information or news tips, or if you see an error in this story or have any compliments or concerns, contact [email protected].

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