On October 27, Adam and Mike sat down with the CEO of the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, James Poulter. They learned how the foundation has partnered with schools and the First Tee program in Clearwater, Florida, to introduce underprivileged children to the game of golf. 

Chi Chi Rodriguez’s legacy goes far beyond his golf course antics and 22 wins on the Champions Tour as he continues to be a positive influence on the game of golf well beyond his competitive days

The following excerpt has been edited for space. Check out the full interview here. 

S/H: There’s nobody more loved in the game of golf for as long as he (Chi Chi) has been. He was top 10 on the money list only once in his career, he’s only won eight or so tournaments on the PGA Tour, and he’s won a lot on the Champions Tour. He’s been around golf for nearly 60 years and almost 70 years in some cases. There’s nobody more loved than him. Why is that?

James: Just his engagement with the fans. He gets how important they are to this tour, to what everybody’s doing out there. As far as his wins go, you have to remember that he was playing with Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and all the greats of golf. 

He really took the Champions Tour to the next level. He understood the guys that continued their careers and continued to grow the game. That was an important part and he took it on. I think a lot of where we’re at today with the Champions Tour and the Senior Tour is because of Chi Chi.

S/H: A lot of people don’t realize that he was one of the pioneers of the Senior Tour and people that had watched him in the ‘60s and ‘70s were going out to watch him now and still in the prime of his golf. He was playing probably better than he had when he was on the PGA Tour. The Senior Tour without his personality is a bunch of old guys still trying to hang on to  their youth and to their sport. He brought that personality and he always has brought the personality. Is that what makes him so special

James: Yeah, definitely. You said earlier that the guys on tour are kind of like robots, right? They go through their pre-shot routines and their motion, they don’t engage with the crowd, but he would bring people inside the ropes, he would walk by talking to the fans watching the tournament. And he just really, really engages the fans.

S/H: What’s cool about the Chi Chi Rodriguez foundation is that it’s not just a golf camp where the kids hit a bunch of balls and putt. You guys are actually teaching them, not just how to play golf, but how to live, how to be successful, how to be proud of themselves. You’re down in the Tampa area in Florida, where you guys have been for a long, long time. How did the foundation start? What are some of those stories that have stuck with you? 

James: We started in 1979. Chi Chi was in town for the JC Penny Classic that was being played locally. He met Bob James who was the founder of Raymond James Financial and Bill Hayes who was a local educator. The three of them got together and started the foundation with $1,000. Originally we were focused on after-school programs and working with kids that had problems with the law or just went on a good track. 

Through the years, we partnered with the school system and with an educational based program, along with golf as a vehicle to teach the kids life skills. It’s just worked out really well. As far as success stories, you measure that in many different ways. We’ve had kids go on to have great careers and be successful managers, running companies. We’ve had kids go to FSU and get scholarships to play golf. One that went through the program does long drive contests. 

One of the most amazing stories was this year with our eighth-grade graduation. This year was obviously a little bit different for people so we actually went around to everybody’s house and dropped them off their graduation gifts and it was amazing. Very emotional. The kids were very, very thankful. Tears, hugs, fist bumps. Something like that will stick with me for a long time.

S/H: Are you surprised that there aren’t more programs such as yours and the First Tee that are trying to get kids who are underprivileged or may not otherwise get exposed to the game of golf? 

James: It’s hard, golf is a challenging sport for kids to get into. There are a lot of great chapters through the First Tee throughout the country. We’re at about 150 right now, but there are some really good ones. If you look at East Lake where they did the Tour Championship, they really turned around that neighborhood. If you look over at Pebble Beach, they have a great chapter over there out in California that does wonderful work as well. There are pockets of great programs, but there can be more. The challenge is obviously the barriers; golf is frustrating, you gotta practice, it’s time-consuming. In the world that we live in, it’s go, go, go a hundred miles an hour and to play 18 holes of golf can take up half a day.

It’s also expensive. From the golf ball all the way up to a brand new driver that can cost $500. We’ve implemented some great programs, affordable camps, classes, and even an offer where kids play free with a paying adult. That encourages the parents, the grandparents, their friends to come out and play on the course. 

We recently redesigned the golf course a couple of years ago. We redid the greens and we added some forward tees for the kids. They’re all about 100-150 yards out and we elevated them as well. I remember as a kid when I was learning, one of the most frustrating things was getting the ball in the air. By elevating the tee boxes a little bit, it helps him get the ball in the air and they’ll keep pounding it down the fairway until it gets to the green.

S/H: When he was a professional on tour, he always looked like he was having fun out there. He’s not in the public spotlight as much anymore, but does he still have that sparkle in his eye that he always had?

James: He does. He comes out when we have events throughout the year with donors and supporters. He takes the time, he signs things, he engages. Last year at one of the tournaments, we had a videographer out there and in literally one take, he drained a 25-foot putt. Just walked up and drained it.

Ready to stop reading and start listening? Sit back and hear the complete podcast to hear more from James Poulter and the rest of the Stick and Hack Show.