2004: Competition - Veteran doesn’t let war injury deter his game

Catalina Island, Calif.

For Richard Saldana, April Fool’s Day 1970 was no time for laughs. He was in Vietnam, guarding a helicopter that required engine work. Once the repairs were finished, Saldana and three other members of the 11th Armored Calvary Division headed straight into the jungle. Straight into an ambush.

“There was a big explosion,” recalled Saldana, 58, who lives on Catalina Island, about 20 miles from Long Beach, Calif. “My ears were ringing...They still ring. I got up and moved around, but my arms wouldn’t move anywhere.”

Saldana lost his right hand that morning, but he didn’t lose hope. He came home, and learned how to play golf with one arm. That was 29 years – and 21 aces – ago.

“It never gets old,” said Saldana, who, in March 2003, notched his most recent hole-in-one, with a 5-iron on the 114-yard second hole of the nine-hole Catalina Island Golf Club. The ball started a little left of the flag, rolled to the right, and bingo, joined the list.

The list began in 1976, on the same hole. Saldana used a 6-iron that day. He also won $10, a bet he had made with a friend only minutes earlier. A year later, Saldana recorded another ace. One year, he got three, two within four days. All have come at the same course.

“I’ve watched nine of them, and it’s amazing how he’s done it,” said Mike Mellinger, course manager at Catalina Island. “He’s got a lot of accuracy with his woods and his short irons. He’s tough.”

Saldana played golf as a teen-ager. After the war, he tried to play with a prosthetic, but all it did was give him more frustration.

“It didn’t work,” he said. “It wouldn’t turn the right way.”

So he quit playing. It wasn’t until about a year later that he was willing to give it another go. One afternoon, searching for golf balls in the bushes, he swung with one arm. The ball went farther than he imagined. He could play better, he suddenly realized, without a prosthetic.

He swings with his left arm, with the stub of his right arm resting on the grip. The stub comes off the club as he goes into his backswing. He fades the ball most of the time, and hits it low.

“It’s got a better chance to go in,” he said, “if it rolls on the ground instead of straight up and down. That’s what people tell me.”

Saldana, who has been on disability since Vietnam, plays about five times per week. He carries a 12 handicap.

The injury took away his length. Fortunately, it doesn’t penalize him too much at Catalina Island, which registers only 2,168 yards. Four of the holes are par 3s. The longest par 4 measures 328 yards.

Saldana, who has been married since 1991 and has no children, doesn’t dwell on his experiences in Vietnam. There is still the occasional nightmare, and he has trouble picking up some high-pitch sounds. But there are no complaints.

“Golf gave me something to look forward to,” he said.

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