Greg Cote

He crossed the border at 15 with a dream to play golf. Now he’s a rookie on the PGA Tour

Jose de Jesus Rodriguez of Mexico plays his shot from the third tee during the first round of the Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club on Feb. 21, 2019 in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
Jose de Jesus Rodriguez of Mexico plays his shot from the third tee during the first round of the Puerto Rico Open at Coco Beach Golf and Country Club on Feb. 21, 2019 in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. Getty Images

It’s a straight trip across gulf waters but almost 2,000 miles by car to find your way from the town of Irapuato in central Mexico to this tony city and its PGA National Resort.

The distance might as well have been a million miles for all the realistic shot Jose de Jesus Rodriguez ever had of getting here to the Honda Classic teeing off Thursday. But he did. And it might be simply the greatest little-known story in all of sports, not just golf.

Tiger Woods is skipping this tournament, yes. So that was big news. But it’s the one man who is here who reminds us that “anything is possible,” a cliche’ to some, remains a beacon for dreamers hanging onto reasons to believe.

Jose Rodriguez’s is a tale that ought to especially resonate in diverse South Florida, enriched by so many dreamers who escaped something and found their freedom or better life here. It also is a story made for the times, as divided America jousts with itself over issues like immigration and building walls.

Professional golfers tend to come from the white-collared side of town.

Rodriguez came across the Rio Grande, across the Mexico-U.S. border, a frightened teenager desperate to escape poverty and crime -- but even more desperate to turn his burgeoning skill at golf into the better life that would lift the family he left behind.

“When I left I had no shoes,” he said.

Thursday at the Honda he tees off at age 38 as likely the unlikeliest rookie in the history of the PGA Tour.

“I was in my hotel room thinking, ‘Man, I’m playing on the PGA tour. Tiger Woods is here. People I’m watching on TV,’” Rodriguez said Wednesday of a pinch-me moment in golf’s big leagues, his English heavy with accent. “Sometimes I cry.”

He was the last golfer in the field to arrive and register for the Honda Wednesday, because of a travel mixup, scrambling to see a course he hadn’t met and to hit balls before dark. He stood near an empty putting green at dusk, giving a reporter time, and a smile. His story and personality give him a chance to be immensely popular on his tour, especially if he starts appearing on leaderboards.

If you tried to pitch the movie script for this to a producer it might be thrown back as too unbelievable.

The movie might open as a scared 15-year-old boy with little money leaves his family to make the 550-mile trek from Irapuato to the border town of Nuevo Laredo, hitchhiking, taking buses or walking, panhandling for pesos or food, sleeping under bridges.

The Mexican side of the border is rife with smugglers who’ll get you across, but Jose had not nearly enough money for that. He would have to do it himself.

In the black of night, the boy who could not swim tried to make his way across the famous river only to be intercepted, again, by the U.S. Border Patrol. For months this went on, until finally Jose heard the Border Patrol changed shift at 2 p.m. In that sliver of time, he crossed. He made it. He was in America.

The water that night was up to his chin. The currents shoved him.

“I’m dying in the Rio Grande,” he recalled thinking. “I’m saying, ‘God help me. I want to help my family.”

He found land at last and ran from the border across barren ground until he could run no more, until at last he glimpsed civilization. He was coming upon Laredo, Texas. The first thing he saw. It was a Walmart. Of course.

Jose, second-oldest brother of eight siblings, had left behind his family, a father who labored at construction sites and a mother who cared from a brood that slept side by side on a dirt floor in a small adobe house with no bathroom.

His family called Jose Camaron (Shrimp), not because of his stature (5-9), but because despite dark skin, beating sun would turn his cheeks reddish.

The family sold vegetables grown in its small backyard, but Jose was expected to help provide, so at age 12 he quit school to caddy regularly at the Club de Golf Santa Margarita, a 20-minute bike ride from his home but a world away.

Jose was smitten by the luxury he saw at the course. The expensive clothes, The big cars. He became obsessed with golf being his way out, his way to support his family. By 15 he was making that journey to the Rio Grande.

Jose and his older brother used to make their own clubs, using scraps of rebar from construction sites as the shaft, inner tube rubber as grips and scavenged, shaped metal as club heads. The found golf balls that had been lost.

Now he was in America, alone at 15, trying to figure out where his love of golf might take him, and how.

For 10 years he worked maintenance jobs at Texas and Oklahoma golf courses, wiring home the money he made, but working so hard he had no time to play golf himself.

By 2006, at age 25, he returned home to Irapuato and resumed caddying, his golf dream still alive.

Then, his break break.

A wealthy club member at the Santa Margarita, Alfonso Vallejo Esquivel, befriended Jose and bought him a club membership. Camaron began playing every day, his skills sharpening dramatically. By 2007 Esquivel saw a skill set ready for the minor-league pro tours, and sponsored him to enter a qualifying tournament for the Mexican Tour.

He was ready. A career was slowly lifting off.

He would win 21 tournaments on the Mexican Tour, his winner’s checks in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. He earned his way onto the Web.com Tour, the American minor leagues. He’d show up to sign in for tournaments and be pointed to the kitchen. They thought he was the help.

But as a boy in Mexico can look across the Rio Grande and see America, Camaron could now see the PGA Tour.

By now Rodriguez was married, with a girl and boy now 12 and 10, his own family now living comfortably compared to before.

During his climb, Esquivel, his benefactor, had been killed under mysterious circumstances in late 2014, Mexican police calling it a robbery although nothing had been stolen. Jose’s father then died of natural causes in 2016. (More recently, a friend from Irapuato was killed by sicarios, hit-men from a local drug cartel).

Through his grief, Rodriguez resolved in 2017 to let the memory of his benefactor and his father drive him: “I wouldn’t play for myself,” he told Golf.com recently. “I would play for them.”

He earned his PGA Tour card. For Rodriguez -- here legally on a work visa --the Honda will be the rookie’s 11th event of the season that began last fall. He has made six cuts and missed four, his best finish thus far a tie for 28th place at the Desert Classic. His Official World Golf Ranking is an even 400th.

“He’s not scared,” says his caddy, Mike Dwyer, of his guy’s on-course attitude.

When you cross the Rio Grande, alone, fearing death, a difficult approach shot seems less daunting.

Jose de Jesus Rodriguez has a lot of climbing yet to do to ever win on the PGA Tour.

No matter.

He has already won.

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Greg Cote is a Miami Herald sports columnist who in 2018 was named top 10 in column writing by the Associated Press Sports Editors. Greg also appears regularly on the Dan LeBatard Show With Stugotz on ESPN Radio and ESPNews.
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