CLEARWATER — Juan Antonio “Chi Chi” Rodriguez is one of the greatest professional golfers of all time, an eight-time PGA Tour winner with 22 additional victories on the senior circuit renowned for his flamboyant style both on and off the course.
But over the past 40 years, the World Golf Hall of Famer turned his passion for the game into a mission to help children.
Through his Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, which is based in Clearwater and includes the Chi Chi Academy and the First Tee of Clearwater, the Puerto Rico native has helped thousands of disadvantaged children learn social skills and life lessons through golf.
“We utilize golf as the cornerstone of a program that builds self-esteem, instills a strong work ethic, and stresses the importance of a good education in the lives of disadvantaged children,” Tom James, Chairman of the Board for the Youth Foundation, said in a press release announcing the annual Chi Chi Pro Am, a fundraising tournament and luncheon featuring 80 business leaders, as well as pro golfers Brittany Lincicome and Robert Gamez, at Feathersound Country Club on Thursday, March 15.
The event, one of three fundraisers the foundation hosts every year, raised $165,000 which will go toward Chi Chi’s goal of helping as many of his kids graduate as possible.
“The event today is to raise money to give kids a vehicle they need to conquer the future,” Rodriguez said as he waited for the golfers to return from their round. “I’m grateful to the pros who donated their time, and I’m glad to say we have 96 percent school attendance and 75 percent of our kids graduate, and that’s with no federal money!”
Rodriguez, who at 83 still possesses a deep recollection of tournaments and players as well as a razor sharp, and often NFSW, sense of humor, then signed autographs, posed for pictures and shared handshakes and hugs with several attendees before addressing the room.
After local news anchor Jen Holloway introduced him as “a man who is changing lives every day by teaching golf, sports and life lessons to kids,” Chi Chi took the mic and proceeded to captivate the room.
“What you have done today is a great thing for this community,” Rodriguez said. “I help kids without asking for anything in return, and you’re part of the family now.”
Rodriguez went on to explain how he formed the foundation and school along with partners Bob James and Bill Hayes, “with one kid and $1,000, trying to find a way to help kids stay out of jail.”
“Now, we’re the best organization for young people in the United States. And I thank you all for being a part of that.”
He then exited the room the way only an octogenarian who played baseball with Roberto Clemente and was asked to tour with Milton Berle could — with style to a standing ovation.
Afterwards, Lincicome, spoke about the legend.
“This is my first time meeting him, but he’s fantastic,” said Lincicome, a St. Pete native and Gulfport resident who has eight LPGA Tour wins, including two majors. “To be 83 and he acts 50, so quick-witted and he cares so much about the kids.”
When asked what brought her to the event, the 33-year-old said, “because his name’s on it. I knew it would be a good event because he’s got his hands on it.”
As for how she played?
“I didn’t play very good,” she said with a slight frown. “But I had a very good time, and on a day like today, that’s what it’s all about.