THE Senior PGA Tour was the best thing that ever happened to Chi Chi Rodriguez. In the 26 years he was on the regular tour, he became famous as the wisecracking Little Big Man whose massive drives belied his slender, 5 ft. 7 in. frame. But he was never really a big winner. He won only eight tournaments in all that time, and averaged $40,000 a year in official prize money.
Since he turned 50 and joined the Senior Tour, however, it's been another story. In just three full seasons and parts of two others he has won a dozen tournaments and won about $1.35 million - far above the over $1 million he collected in his entire regular tour career.
``I'm putting much better now,'' he said by way of a partial explanation. ``I don't make a federal case over it any more. If I make it, I make it; if I miss, I miss.''
Then, unable to suppress his penchant for one-liners, he added: ``If I could have putted 20-25 years ago the way I putt now, you'd never have heard of Arnold Palmer!''
Rodriguez also credits much of his newfound success to recent advances in equipment technology. Far from benefiting everyone to the same degree, he points out that such developments (clubs made of space-age materials, longer-distance golf balls) tend to help those in the middle more than those at the top.
``I was never as good as some of those guys - Palmer, Miller Barber, Don January,'' he said at a press gathering for the annual Digital Seniors Classic at Nashawtuc Country Club here. ``They were here, and I was here,'' he said, putting one hand far above the other. ``The equipment closed the gap to here,'' he added, bringing his hands close together.
But whatever the reasons, the ever-popular veteran has certainly thrived on the Senior Tour (see accompanying story). And he says sometimes he still can't believe how far he's come from those boyhood days in Puerto Rico when he started hitting a balled-up tin can with a guava tree branch.
``I used to look forward to being a waiter in a place like this,'' he said, surveying the elegant dining room during lunch.
Juan Rodriguez grew up as the fifth of six children in Rio Piedras, near San Juan. Always a good athlete, he played baseball up to the semipro level. He started working at a golf club as a youngster, and through his teen-age years he took every opportunity he could to learn and play the game. He continued to improve during two years in the Army, and upon his return to Puerto Rico in 1957 was hired as caddie master at the new Dorado Beach resort, where he worked for the next couple of years under the veteran pro Pete Cooper.
By 1960, Rodriguez felt ready to take his shot - and he quickly became something of an institution. People marveled at how a player that small (he weighed only 117 pounds then, though he's up to 132 now) could be one of the longest hitters on the tour. They loved his daring, even reckless style of play. And they loved his antics (like putting his hat over the hole and dancing a tango after making a birdie) and wisecracking.
Success hasn't seemed to go to his head; he dedicates time and money to helping others. Twice he has donated sizable chunks of his winning purses to tornado victims, and in 1979 he began the Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation to counsel and educate troubled, abused, and disadvantaged children. He also conducts clinics for inner-city children on many of his tour stops.
``I'll do anything to help kids gain self-esteem,'' he said. ``I like them to see how a little man like me can make it, how little people can rise. And I like to let them know how I feel about America - how great it is to live in this country. Because if I made it, anybody can!''