It's terrific to turn 50 and have a better job waiting for you,'' jokes Chi Chi Rodriguez, age 52 going on 21. He is the runaway leader on the Senior PGA Tour in victories, prize money, and chuckles. ``My old goal was to retire from playing golf and become the head pro at a nice private club,'' Rodriguez quips. ``My new goal is to own the club.''
The way he's playing, it won't be long. Is the Olympic Club in San Francisco for sale? The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.?
It took Rodriguez 25 years to earn a million dollars on the regular PGA Tour. He's on course to earn a million on the senior tour in 25 months!
So far this season he has won seven tournaments with four seconds and three thirds. He's pushing the half-million mark in earnings, having long since broken the one-year record of $454,299 set by Bruce Crampton last year. His stroke average of right around 70 also leads the tour this year.
``My ambitions are to go over a million dollars in my first two years and break the senior single-season wins record this year,'' he says.
He can't be too far off in terms of the first objective, with 1986-87 earnings right around the $900,000 mark as of last weekend. The senior record for victories in a season is nine, by Peter Thomson in 1985.
``I'm not making predictions,'' Chi Chi says. ``When you're on top you have to work hard to stay up there. I don't think about the prize money. If I play well, it'll be there.''
It is entirely possible that Rodriguez, unlike most of the 50-and-over crowd, has never played as brilliantly as he is playing now. He is definitely putting better than ever.
``Cheech could win on the regular tour with the game he's showed us this year,'' says Arnold Palmer, one of his chief competitors on the senior tour. ``His putting catches fire and there's no containing him.''
Rodriguez credits a putting lesson from fellow senior Bob Toski, the noted teacher. Toski showed him how to deliver the putter blade squarely into the ball instead of slicing across it. He also encouraged Rodriguez to hit the ball slightly on the upswing with his putter, to get it rolling more smoothly.
``I started to make putts and my confidence went into orbit,'' Rodriguez says. ``I owe a lot to Bob. That's one of the great things about this game - we all help each other in practice and then go out and try to beat the tar out of each other on the course. What other sport is like that?''
Rodriguez drives the ball a long distance, for a senior or for anybody else. He weighs only 132 pounds after an awards banquet, but can knock the ball two yards per pound with his well-timed, forceful swing. He uses a peculiar, extra-long tee.
``He has great hand action,'' says venerable swing master Sam Snead. ``He goes at it hard, but he's under control at impact. Afterward is when he looks as though he's coming out of his socks.''
Rodriguez replies, ``If I could drive the ball just 20 yards farther I could beat anybody in the world these days. I have to swing hard, I'm so small. I got my start in golf as a ball marker, you know.''
Actually he started as a poor youngster in his native Puerto Rico, swatting at bottle caps with a stick. He caddied for 35 cents per round and in the best caddie tradition developed trick shots that make him one of the game's great recovery players.
``A lot of people helped me come up,'' he says. ``They opened their hearts to me and made me feel 10 feet tall. Now I try to open my heart to others, especially kids who need help.''
Among many charitable activities, Chi Chi runs a foundation for underprivileged kids in his adopted Florida. When the Ambassador of Golf award was established to recognize humanitarian deeds off the course, he was named the first winner at the 1983 World Series of Golf.
``Money isn't important, and I was saying that before I had a lot,'' he says. ``The important thing is to be happy and gain peace of mind. If you have peace of mind, you're a mental millionaire.''