CHI CHI CHIC : From One-Liners to One-Putts, Rodriguez Fits Senior Skins Mold

Times Staff Writer

A skins game is an event made for golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez. The idea is to have some fun, entertain a television audience and, almost incidentally, pick up some easy money.

The colorful Puerto Rican fills the bill on all three counts. Furthermore, he is the defending champion in the Senior Skins Game. Nobody will have a better time, and it’s doubtful anyone will come up with better one-liners. If Rodriguez plays the way he did a year ago, he’ll win most of the money, too.

When the first skins game for the 50-and-over group was held last January in Hawaii, Rodriguez won $300,000 of a total purse of $360,000 in the 18-hole, 2-day event. Three well-timed birdies enabled Rodriguez to win the honors over Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Sam Snead.


The event has been shifted to the Mountain Course of the La Quinta Hotel Golf Club. The participants will play 9 holes today and 9 Sunday.

Palmer, 59, who picked up only $20,000, and Player, winner of $40,000, are back to face Rodriguez. Billy Casper, a mere 57, has replaced the immortal Snead, who will be 77 this spring.

Because of television, the old-timers must arise early. Today, they begin at 9 a.m.; Sunday, they tee off at 8:30.

“I think it would be terrible if I didn’t win,” Rodriguez said. “It would only be fitting that a poor little boy from Puerto Rico wins the big money. I know Palmer and Player are millionaires, and undoubtedly, Casper is, too. They don’t need the money.”

Although it has been a year since he won the big purse, people are still giving Rodriguez advice on what to do with all that money.

“I won $300,000, and it seems that 300,000 people have come up to me with advice on how to invest it,” Rodriguez said. “I tell them if their scheme is so good, they should give it to their family. I tell them I would feel bad taking money away from their fathers, mothers, wives, nephews or nieces. Everybody’s got a good deal.”

In the season opener, the Tournament of Champions at La Costa 2 weeks ago, Rodriguez played poorly. He finished 7 over par with a 295. He didn’t hit the ball consistently well and putted poorly.

“I’m going right to La Quinta,” he said after that tournament. “I haven’t played that course before. But with more than a week to get my game together, I should be ready. I better be, because this will probably be my last chance.

“Next January Lee (Trevino) and Jack (Nicklaus) will be seniors. I won’t get invited to play. But, I’ll caddie and get 10% so I’ll make money.

“The money doesn’t excite me. I just love winning and I love the challenge of competing with the best. I have a good time all the time, but this is something special. I enjoy playing with Arnie. He’s the king and we all owe him for the success of the sport.”

In the skins format, the first 6 holes are worth $10,000 apiece. The next 6 are worth $20,000 and the last 6 $30,000. A player must win a hole outright. When there is a tie for low on a hole, the money carries over to the next hole.

On the first day last year, Rodriguez won $40,000 and Palmer $20,000. The last 3 holes on the front 9, all worth $20,000, were halved.

So, when Rodriguez rammed in a birdie putt on the first hole, No. 10, Sunday, it was worth $80,000. His birdie on 15 was for $90,000.

When there was a tie on the 18th, the golfers began a sudden-death playoff. Snead and Player were long gone when, on the sixth extra hole, Rodriguez made a birdie to beat Palmer out of another $90,000.

Rodriguez is convinced that his slow start this season is linked with his stopping smoking. “I quit on Dec. 19,” he said. “When you stop, it changes your metabolism. It takes awhile to adjust to the changes. I have quit before, but this time I mean it.”

Watching Rodriguez laughing, going through his sword-dance routine and other gyrations, you might get the idea Rodriguez is never serious. About some things he is.

“America is a wonderful place,” said Rodriguez, well known for his work with youngsters. “A little guy can be a big success. But money’s no good if you don’t use it right.

“Mother Teresa said to share with those who don’t have it. I try to do that. I use it for helping kids, mostly. The more I give, the more I receive.”

Another time when he was serious--dead serious--was last Oct. 8. He was playing in the $1-million Vantage, the biggest money tournament on the Senior Tour. He finished the third round 11 shots off the pace. But that is not why Rodriguez angrily phoned The Times to lodge a protest.

Rodriguez had been watching his beloved Dodgers playing the New York Mets in the third game of the National League championship series. He had seen Manager Davey Johnson protest that Dodger relief pitcher Ken Howell was using an illegal substance, pine tar.

“I’m upset,” stormed Rodriguez. “I can’t believe they would throw Howell out for that. All pitchers use illegal substance, a lot of them worse than pine tar. I know because I was a pitcher in Puerto Rico. Every pitcher I know except Juan Marichal and Sandy Koufax have broken the rules. They didn’t need anything else.

“Watch Dwight Gooden next time. When he goes to his ear, it’s illegal. I know these things.

“Nobody files protests in playoffs or World Series, except Johnson and the Mets. A couple of years ago he accused Houston pitcher Mike Scott of scuffing the ball. Nobody else does those things in playoffs.

“I hope they lose.”

Rodriguez’s hopes were realized. Now, if he can be the big winner again in the skins, he’ll be even happier.