Friday, March 6

Flashback Friday: Chi Chi and Me at the Puerto Rico Open

Eileen Earley (Ogilvy), Hall of Famer Chi Chi Rodriguez and yours truly
at a reception at the Gran Melia Golf Resort. (image: Rob Hayashida)
THEY'RE PLAYING THE PUERTO RICO OPEN this week, which reminds me of my trip to the island six years ago. There have been many unexpected perks to running this blog. A sponsored trip to the Puerto Rico Open in March 2009 is one of the most memorable. I was part of a press tour hosted by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

I did meet and talk to Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and a golf ambassador for his island nation. That week in 2009 I wrote a few pieces about Chi Chi, including the following anecdote about the greatest shot of his career.

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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.

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.

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 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.

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