Originally created 02/12/99

Rodriguez returns to golf after heart attack



The sword dance whenever he makes an important putt and the constant banter with the gallery are still part of the routine. Chi Chi Rodriguez is one of the most engaging personalities in golf, and not even a heart attack can get in the way of that.

The only changes in store for Rodriguez, who returns to the Senior PGA Tour this week in the American Express Invitational in Sarasota, Fla., are off the course.

No more cigarettes, which he gave up 16 months ago. A diet that allows him only about 3 ounces of red meat each week. And a new message for anyone who will listen.

"Don't be stubborn," Rodriguez said. "Whenever you have pain or dizzy spells, get a stress test. Go see a doctor. Because the heart attack that I had could have been prevented."

Rodriguez is back on the tour for the first time since a heart attack on Oct. 13, which he says probably would have killed him if not for his brother insisting he go to a doctor.

Rodriguez was working out that Tuesday morning before a practice round in the Raley's Gold Rush Classic. He routinely went 30 minutes at 12 mph on the stationary bicycle, and he was playing well. A month earlier, his tie for fifth in the Comfort Classic was his best tournament of the year.

But when he got on the bike, he noticed something wrong.

"I had to stop because my stomach was killing me," he said.

He took some antacid, got back on the bike and had to stop again after five minutes when he found it even more difficult to breathe and swallow. After a big breakfast -- Rodriguez loves food about as much as golf -- he finally agreed to see a doctor and couldn't believe what he heard.

"Mr. Rodriguez, you're having a heart attack right now," the doctor told him.

"It scared me for the first time," Rodriguez said. "Jim Anderson (his pilot) drove me to the hospital and a team of doctors was waiting to operate. If I had waited another 10 minutes, the doctor said I would have needed a heart transplant.

"They call it the widow-maker," he said. "About 50 percent of the people who get this kind of heart attack die. So, I beat the odds pretty good."

Rodriguez has been doing that all his life. He learned the game in Puerto Rico by hitting tin cans with a guava tree stick, then worked as a caddie before joining the U.S. Army at 19. He joined the PGA Tour in 1960 and won eight times during his 21-year career, playing on one Ryder Cup team.

He left his mark on golf through his Chi Chi Rodriguez Foundation, which has raised more than $5 million, and on the Senior Tour, where he has become one of its most popular players even though he hasn't won since 1993.

"He would be a big void if he were gone," Larry Nelson said Thursday from the TPC at Prestancia. "Last year, we missed him while he was gone."

Rodriguez plans to play in only 18 tournaments this year as he slowly works himself into shape. He felt strong enough to play 27 holes two weeks ago, but doesn't want to push it. He says he will treat golf even less seriously now, although he is very serious about his eating habits.

"My grandparents on both sides lived to be 100, and I figured I would live to be 100 without worrying about anything," Rodriguez said. "But I was eating too much of the wrong stuff.

"I tell you what," he said. "If you've got a good car, you better put good gas in it or you'll ruin it."

Rodriguez has lost 17 pounds and feels better than he has in years. His doctors told him the heart attack probably had been in the makings for as many as four years, and Rodriguez is thankful to have a chance to keep playing.

"In bed when I was almost dead, I found out about life," he said. "Money doesn't mean anything. Your health is everything."

But Rodriguez made one deathbed deal that he now finds hard to keep.

"All I ask God to do is to play golf with my friends. I couldn't care less about competing," he said. "But now that I'm feeling better, I want to compete again."