'I play like it's the last day of my life'
José de Jesús Rodríguez overcame hardship and tragedy to become a must-watch rookie on the PGA TOUR
January 15, 2019
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
José de Jesús Rodríguez overcame hardship and tragedy to become a must-watch rookie on the PGA TOUR
José de Jesús Rodríguez was 5 when he started picking corn with the rest of his family in the field adjacent to the golf course in Irapuato, Mexico. Plumbing was a luxury for others and personal computers almost unheard of in his small hometown, which is more than a mile above sea level in the state of Guanajuato.
It was, he said, triste. Sad. Food was scarce, work ceaseless. His house had dirt floors. And the bathrooms? In the arboles (trees).
“There were days that we didn’t eat,” Rodríguez recalls in a series of interviews with the PGA TOUR at the Sanderson Farms Championship and Mayakoba Golf Classic last fall. “For one, two, three days. We ate when we had enough after picking. If we ate, we had only one tortilla.”
One tortilla for an entire day? For the entire family?
“Yes,” he confirms.
The memories start flooding his mind. He’s trying hard to keep his emotions in check. Now 37 years old, his future finally is bright. But he cannot bury his past.
“You are going to make me cry,” he says.
Already a legend in Mexico, Rodríguez made three cuts in five starts in the fall portion of the 2018-19 season and is coming off a T57 finish at the Sony Open in Hawaii. He will tee it up again at this week’s Desert Classic at La Quinta, California, as he continues to battle it out with the 20 other rookies in this year’s class to solidify his status on TOUR.
If you’re wondering which new player to cheer for, Rodríguez might top the list.
It starts with those cornfields, next to which was a golf course. Rodríguez and his siblings scrounged for lost balls and resold them. At the time, he preferred soccer – but the spark had been lit. “Look where I am now,” he says.
Indeed, look. From one tortilla per day to the world’s top chefs cooking most anything he could possibly want in player dining. From scrounging for lost balls to state-of-the-art equipment and the finest courtesy cars. His journey has included hunger, border crossings, and a brutal murder over which his grief may never fully subside. Years after he worked his way up from mowing greens to putting on them, he still wrestles with the notion that golf is for rich people, not him. And while most TOUR pros played Division I golf in college, Rodríguez never finished high school. Or started it. Patton Kizzire tweeted last week that Rodríguez had just become “my new favorite player,” so wild and improbable is his origin story.
His game is pretty good, too.
“The first time I saw him on the driving range, I thought this guy is unbelievable,” says Mike Dwyer, a club caddie who began working for Rodríguez a week before he won his first Web.com Tour title last April. “It’s just a pure swing, it’s not technical; it’s not going to go away. It’s just so rhythmic; the timing of it is always money, it’s free-flowing. Just straight back and let it rip, all feel. And then when I saw his short game, I thought, this guy has got it all.”
In one sense, Rodríguez is unremarkable. He went from the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada to PGA TOUR Latinoamerica to the Web.com Tour to the PGA TOUR. He got married, had a few kids. It’s just that his journey included dropping out of school at age 12 to help his family put food on the table. And setting out for America three years later for the same reason.
And always, to this day, feeling like an outsider.
“It’s a game of rich people,” he says, describing the occasional voice of doubt in his head. “When you have nothing, you think they’re going to look at you and say, ‘What are you doing here?’ But my wife said, ‘No, you go play. It’s the golf clubs that talk. You have money, you don’t have money, the clubs don’t care.’”
The clubs don’t, and the ball doesn’t, either. And if Emerson was right and we acquire the strength we have overcome, no one can touch Rodríguez.
“He’s a great guy who’s been through some crazy stuff,” says Abraham Ancer, one of a record four Mexicans with PGA TOUR cards this season. “And he’s found a way to get to the best tour in the world.”
Rodríguez was given his nickname, El Camarón (The Shrimp), by his godmother because his face was red at birth. He’s fine with it, and the Mexican media call him Camarón.
He is one of eight siblings, four boys and four girls. Ask him for his favorite childhood memory, and he cites their games of canicas (marbles). The siblings were ages 10-14 when they helped their father, Jota Jesús, build their house out of concrete. Construction took some six months, and the children helped out however they could, including unloading and loading a three-wheel cart.
Those who were old enough caddied, and soon that included Rodríguez. His first golf swing utilized some construction rebar with a piece of bicycle tire for a grip, as he mostly left the golf to his brother Rosendo, who would become an instructor. (He coaches Rodríguez.)
The game seemed unimportant, and Rodríguez began to consider crossing the border to earn more for himself and his family. Finally, at age 15, he struck out for America. From Irapuato, the closest border town was Matamoros, the Rio Grande standing between him and the U.S.
It would not be easy. He was alone – and he didn’t know how to swim. Undeterred, he pressed on and at one point found himself wading through water up to his armpits.
“I knew I was taking a huge risk and that I could die crossing that river or anywhere for that matter,” recalls Rodríguez, who subsisted on whatever food he could find during the ordeal.
He had a few false starts, but on the third attempt, he made it across.
Rodríguez began working as a dishwasher in Arkansas. He joined a construction crew, putting the roofs on Walmarts. He shingled houses. He made money, sending it back to his grateful family, but began to burn out. The work was exhausting, and Rodríguez missed his family terribly.
A golf course-maintenance job in Fayetteville, Arkansas, gave Rodríguez new life, and he later followed his manager to a course in Duncan, Oklahoma. He played every day after work.
Although they didn’t know each other, Ancer, who grew up in Texas and Mexico and played for the University of Oklahoma, practiced at the same course where Rodríguez was working maintenance. They only learned of the coincidence at the Mayakoba Golf Classic last fall.
“The world is very small,” Rodríguez says, shaking his head.
Not until he was 25 did he go back to Mexico for good.
Alfonso Vallejo was waiting for him.
Vallejo, who owned a string of drug stores, had never wanted Rodríguez to go to America in the first place. The businessman had urged him to stay home, and even said he would set up Rodríguez, his favorite caddie, with a small, mom-and-pop-style market. It was Vallejo who had first seen something ineffable in Rodríguez that made him stand out from the other caddies.
What did Vallejo see? Natural talent, for one. But it wasn’t just that.
“He saw my values,” responds Rodríguez. “He told me.”
“We were very hungry, but we didn’t grab what wasn’t ours,” he explains. “He always left food out and we would leave it there, and it stayed there until the next day.”
Vallejo was a member at the fancier Club de Golf Santa Margarita, which was a short bike ride up the hill from Rodríguez’s childhood home. Rodríguez began to play golf there thanks to Vallejo and the caddie master, who would set him up with the clubs of members who hadn’t played in years. Once, a member unexpectedly called for his bag while Rodríguez was out on the course and was told the equipment could not be found. It miraculously reappeared the following week.
Alas, caddies were forbidden from playing, and when Rodríguez was caught, he was suspended for three months. The second time, he got six months. There was no third time, because Vallejo intervened. They not only played 18 holes, they retired to the clubhouse for beers.
“Everybody stared at me as I was drinking my beer,” says Rodríguez. “The manager comes and asks to speak with me, he scolds me for being there and said some pretty hurtful things. I came back to the table and Alfonso asked me what was wrong, so I told him, ‘I can’t be here.’”
Vallejo took out his phone and called his chauffeur, with Rodríguez looking on and fearing the worst. What now, a lifetime ban? In walked the chauffeur, who placed a folder on the table.
“Open it,” Vallejo said.
Rodríguez did. Inside was a certificate declaring that Mr. José de Jesús Rodríguez was a member of Club de Golf Santa Margarita, with all rights and responsibilities therein. He was stunned.
“You are now a member,” Vallejo said, “just like everybody who is sitting here.”
A vastly more polished player than he’d been before he left Mexico, Rodríguez soon turned professional, in 2007. Vallejo would be his sponsor. Rodríguez entered his first tournament at Club Campestre in Aguascalientes, Mexico, but was late to the first tee and dealt a two-stroke penalty. It was a rude awakening, but he birdied the first two holes to get back to even par.
“Funny story,” he says, smiling at the memory. “I was thinking to myself, well, that was easy.”
He won a qualifier to get into the 2008 Mexico Open presented by Corona, a Web.com Tour tournament, and finished T7. He flew on a plane for the first time at 28 to get to a Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada event in 2009. His success there led to an invitation to play that tour fulltime, but he told officials he couldn’t because of his illegal time in the United States. Rodriguez never tried to hide his past.
“They told me not to worry,” he says, “and in a week, I had my papers to travel to Canada.”
Everywhere, he won. Everywhere, he talked to his golf balls, which somehow eased his mind from the quotidian frustrations of the game. “When I talk to the ball, I’m more relaxed, more patient,” he explains. “‘Vamos, Reyna (queen); vamos, Hermosa (sister); vamos, Linda (pretty one).’ I start at night: ‘Hey, tomorrow we start. Please get in the hole.’”
He won the 2011 Mexican PGA Championship, a Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada event, and won again on that tour later that year. Be aggressive, Vallejo urged. Rodríguez was.
He went to the American embassy in Mexico and sought legal travel status, explaining himself to the agent.
“He asked me a couple questions,” Rodríguez says. “I filled out a questionnaire, and he told me I was an honest person because I had told him truthfully everything I had done.”
With his documentation sorted out, America was no longer off-limits. PGA TOUR Latinoamérica launched in 2012, creating a gateway to the Web.com Tour, and Rodríguez won for the first time on the new Latinoamérica circuit in early 2013. Then he won again.
All the while, he knew that Vallejo had his back.
“He used to ask me, ‘Are you missing anything? Do you need something?’” Rodríguez says. “I didn’t. He would reply, ‘Concentrate on hitting to the flag.’ He would make me use driver instead of irons from the tee so that I could attack the flagstick. I needed to learn how to be aggressive. When I travelled, he would pay everything for me, including a salary for me, and for my family.”
Vallejo set them up in a house 20 minutes from Santa Margarita, and bought Rodríguez a car, a white Nissan Tsuru that was so new he had to peel the plastic off the interior. Life was good.
When he was home in Irapuato, Rodríguez had a usual game at Santa Margarita with his sponsor. It was a simple pleasure that he looked forward to. One morning a few weeks before Christmas in 2014, Vallejo was late for their 6:40 tee time. Rodríguez waited. And waited.
Finally, at around 7:30 a.m., he received a call, but not from Vallejo.
“‘Jose, where you at?’” Rodríguez says, recounting the conversation. “I say, ‘I’m here, waiting for my sponsor.’ He say, ‘No, no.’ ‘Why no?’ ‘Because he died.’”
Rodríguez fell to the ground. He recalls someone asking him if he was OK, and saying he was not. He staggered to his car, turned the engine, and drove the Tsuru into a pole, badly crumpling the hood. “I didn’t know how I even got there,” he notes. “I was in shock.” The police came and eventually drove him home.
The investigation into the death of Alfonso Vallejo Esquivel would conclude he’d been shot at close range in either a robbery or a botched kidnapping on the night of Dec. 16, 2014. One news account had him driving in his truck as he collected cash from his pharmacies.
Police would find his killer and sentence him to 30 years, 11 months in prison.
Rodríguez considered quitting golf, but his psychologist reminded him of his friend’s sacrifices, pointing out that Vallejo would want him to continue working at it. Vallejo’s daughter got in touch and reminded him of the same thing, staking Rodríguez with $2,000.
He started over, winning twice in Mexico in 2015, but he also endured more losses. His grandmother died, and a year after that his father, Jota Jesús, succumbed to cancer. Rodríguez played on, bouncing back 20 days later with an emotional final-round 64 to win the 2017 Avianca Colombia Open, the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica season-opener.
“I felt a good vibe coming from above,” a tearful Rodríguez said. “I’m sure he was cheering for me up there in heaven and that he is very proud of me.”
He was PGA TOUR Latinoamerica’s Player of the Year in 2017 after winning once more, and his success earned him status on the Web.com Tour.
In April, Rodríguez chased down Stanford product Maverick McNealy, whose father is Sun Microsystems founder Scott McNealy, to win the United Leasing and Finance Championship at Indiana’s brutally hard Victoria National. The contrast between their backgrounds could not have been sharper, but Rodríguez’s wife had been proven correct: The golf ball hadn’t cared.
The victor’s spoils included a Rolex watch and all but clinched his PGA TOUR card. Asked on Golf Channel what the victory meant, Rodríguez looked to the sky and was almost to the end of his first answer when his voice broke and he quickly walked away.
The victory, the Rolex, the TOUR promotion—these things were Vallejo’s, as well.
“Every shot, good or bad, he would smile and laugh,” Rodríguez says.
His late father also won that day in Indiana, and Jota Jesús is never far from Rodríguez’s thoughts. Rodríguez continues to support his mother, Josefina, back in Irapuato. Still impoverished but now dangerous, his hometown has become a hard place to visit, Rodríguez notes, calling it “insecure” and “complicated.”
He lives with his wife, Blancanieves, daughter, Ximena, 12, and son, José de Jesús, 9, in the house Vallejo gave them. It has four bathrooms, and Rodríguez tells his kids not to take them for granted. They ask him about his upbringing and are wide-eyed with disbelief at the stories.
Rodríguez has a photo of himself picking corn when he was 5. He thinks someone at the adjacent golf course must have taken it, as his family owned a tiny, black-and-white TV but not a camera. The image of that boy is a reminder of just how far he has come. Now, in addition to wearing a lucky red bracelet on his left wrist, he has a Rolex. He wears the Santa Margarita logo on his sleeve in exchange for not having to pay dues at the club. Beyond that, he’s still seeking endorsements.
“Someday, somebody will want to sponsor me,” he says. “Someone will notice me.”
He is admittedly not the player he was before the tragedy. He’s not as aggressive, struggles with confidence. Dwyer, his caddie, calls him “a showman” who loves big occasions and boisterous crowds. He is considering adding a U.S. base, in either Jupiter, Florida, or Austin, Texas, but first will need to obtain a different visa.
Triste? Yes, it was sad, what it took to get here. The tears are never far from the surface. But it’s also a happy story. “I look back and I feel things,” Rodríguez says. “At the same time, I’m very proud, because I realize where I am and that makes me very happy.”
Every morning, he says, he wakes up and thanks God for the new day. He calls his late sponsor an angel, a man who appeared out of nowhere and changed everything.
“I stop and think: Wow, life gives you a lot of opportunities,” Rodríguez says. “And I’m very thankful for this opportunity. Every time I play, I play like it’s the last day of my life.”