(Photo courtesy of Rob Hayashida of Golf Views)
ARMCHAIR GOLF is in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico, for the Puerto Rico Open.
IT HAS BEEN TOO many years since my high school Spanish, so I cannot share many of the particulars of Tuesday’s opening media conference at the Puerto Rico Open because it was conducted mostly in the native language. There was a parade of speakers who made brief comments to open the tournament, including Chi Chi Rodriguez, defending champion Michael Bradley, a PGA Tour representative and various Puerto Rican dignitaries and tourism officials.
But I definitely got the gist of their remarks. All those associated with staging the Puerto Rico Open and showcasing the island as a friendly tourist and golf destination are absolutely thrilled to be on the PGA Tour schedule. Smiles and gratitude require no translation. Hosting the Puerto Rico Open is a huge deal, sort of like a Super Bowl for the island, and something I would not grasp if not on the scene.
Chi Chi and the Shot
Although I didn’t have anything set up, I was hoping to meet Chi Chi and talk to him for a few minutes. I got my chance when Steve Ellis, a writer on assignment for The Golfer, pulled Rodriguez aside for an interview. I asked Steve if I could tag along and the three of us walked outside and stood in the warm sun.
Chi Chi, 74, looked immaculate in a striped white shirt, royal blue slacks and his signature Panama hat. He slipped on a leather jacket and stood in the 80-degree heat as cool as a Polar bear. Steve was incredulous, commenting to me a few times later, “How can he be wearing that jacket?”
The interview began with Chi Chi describing the best shot of his career, a 6-iron from the rough on the 72nd hole of the 1991 U.S. Senior Open that set up a tap-in birdie. It tied him with Jack Nicklaus and forced an 18-hole playoff that he lost to the Golden Bear the following day. The career shot at Oakland Hills came back to me as Chi Chi described it. He had 185 yards and needed to hit a low hook, curving the ball about 50 yards. The ball landed on the right-hand side of the green (or apron) and spun 90 degrees left, rolling across the green until it stopped about a foot from the hole. Steve told me that, up in the booth, Johnny Miller called it the greatest shot he’d ever witnessed.
Not sure about that, but let’s just say it was a stunning golf shot at a tense moment in a major championship. (I wish I could share a video clip, but my search for one was unsuccessful.)
Steve asked, “How did you do it? How did you hit that shot?”
“I did it in my mind,” Chi Chi said. In other words, he visualized the shot and then stepped up and swatted the thing out of the rough. He was not particularly surprised by the result, except, perhaps, that the ball finished so close to the hole. Chi Chi was a shotmaker of the highest order who curved the ball left or right, hit it low or lower, and deftly spun the ball out of a variety of grasses and lies. It was the way golf was played in the days that preceded the power era.
To emphasize his mind control ability, Chi Chi also claimed that he could change traffic signals from red to green. Steve and I chuckled, but Chi Chi barely cracked a smile. Maybe so.
I asked Chi Chi what he remembered about his first PGA Tour victory at the 1963 Denver Open. The tournament was played at the Denver Country Club, and Chi Chi had a two-shot lead as he teed his ball on the final hole and unleashed a 300-yard-plus drive in the mile-high Colorado air.
Chi Chi laughed as he recalled that his playing partner Dave Hill said he was stupid for hitting a driver on the last hole with a slim lead. You should hit an iron, Hill told Rodriguez. Chi Chi shrugged it off, saying he knew he could fit his ball in the fairway. That kind of confidence in his abilities led to seven more wins on the PGA Tour.
Tuesday was a full day. Following are more of the day’s activities.
• Special breakfast that included a presentation on the Gran Melia Golf Resort Puerto Rico, followed by a guided tour of the property.
• Afternoon outing at Rio Mar Country Club, including lunch, time with the head pro, Rafael (a great guy), practice range time and golf until rain forced us from the course.
–The Armchair Golfer
Chi Chi Rodriguez: Puerto Rico’s Golf Ambassador