There's fun and birdies to be found at Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club in Clearwater
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Chi Chi Rodriguez won 38 times on the PGA Tour and is best known for clowning around after making a key putt, swirling his putter over his head or throwing his cap over the hole to keep the ball from escaping.
The clowning started when he grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico, barely able to afford golf balls let alone greens fees. When he was just getting his feet wet in the world of professional golf, he was playing a round in his native Puerto Rico. He didn't have a shtick, but he had a strong, sunny personality that made him a fan favorite. One day he made a long putt.
Or at least he thought he made a long putt. The putt sank into the bottom of the cup and immediately popped out. Along with his golf ball came a frog that apparently didn't want to be awakened at that particular time.
Golf rules say nothing about sleeping frogs, so when the ball bounced out, so did Rodriguez's birdie. From that point on, as a joke, he started tossing his Panama hat on top of the cup after drilling a putt. It turns out that is against the rules, so he came up with the putter-as-a-sword that has become his signature.
There's a new signature now, and that's Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club, which is much more than just 18 challenging holes. It's also a school run by Pinellas County that teaches more than 90 kids life rules and how to play golf. There are five types of kids who can qualify for the Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy: kids struggling with grades, kids with a sense of low self-esteem, kids who have been abused, kids under government assistance programs and kids who appear socially withdrawn.
That's only a part of the appeal at Chi Chi's. The golf is pretty special as well. It won't destroy your handicap, but it plays to a par 69 at 5,454 yards from the tips. It's also right across the street from the Chi Chi Rodriguez Driving Range, a lighted facility with a practice green and chipping area.
"That's typical of Chi Chi," Head Professional James Poulter said. "He created a fun course that integrates kids who grew up like he did and gives them a chance to play on a nice course while going to school, and he made it a fun course that won't break anyone's game. We keep it in good shape all year, and the practice facilities are as good as any."
The golf course itself is one of the best bargains in Tampa Bay. It might not be long, but it still has some bite. The first hole is a long par 5 that plays to 460 yards, the longest hole on the front nine. The eighth is a 202-yard par 3 with a small green surrounded by mounds on all sides. No. 9 is 383 yards and is the longest par 4 on the course. It's a dogleg right with a creek fronting the green.
Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club's back nine is a bit easier, but the par-5 18th is 473 yards with a tight fairway and a green fronted by the same creek that runs across the ninth.
"We wanted a short course that we could get around without wasting too many golf balls," local resident Robert Kuchman said. "This is fun and we know they will treat you well. There isn't a hole that's too tough, and that's a little rare down here."
Kuchman's wife, Sandy, said she is starting out at the game, albeit at a late age she didn't want to disclose.
"I wanted to play golf with my husband, and he said this was the perfect place to learn," she said. "I didn't do too well, but it was still fun. Maybe the game isn't so tough after all."
There are lessons offered at both the course and the driving range at the Denis Griffith-designed course. Beware, though, there is no alcohol sold or allowed on the course because of the school. Each cart has a GPS system.
Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club: The verdict
Rodriguez is all about fun and so is Chi Chi Rodriguez Golf Club. It's not too tough and a decent golfer can score on most holes. Go out, go low and have the kind of time Chi Chi would want you to have.