The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

August 2002
A FEATURE STORY

Richard Saldana

Photo by Michael Keating

 
 

Richard Saldana: GOLF ACE

BY MICHAEL ARKUSH 

The most remarkable thing about Richard Saldana is not the 20 hole-in-ones he has recorded over the last quarter century. Other golfers have done that. The most remarkable thing about Richard Saldana is that he has accomplished this rare feat with only one hand. He lost the other in Vietnam. 

Saldana, 56, plays about five times a week at the only golf course on his native Catalina Island. As a kid, the course, only a few blocks from his home, is where he found the game. As a man, it's where he found himself. 

For several years after his tour of duty in Vietnam, Saldana preferred a different kind of hole - a watering hole. He would go into town and get drunk on a fairly regular basis. It was merely something to do, which sure beat sitting around the house and feeling sorry for himself. Eventually, however, the bottle got old. So he turned to golf and hasn't turned back since.  

``It makes my mind feel a lot better,'' Saldana said. ``I really think that if it weren't for golf, I might have drunk myself to death by now.''  

Saldana, the youngest of 11 children, was drafted in 1968. In March of 1969, he arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to the 11th Armored Calvary Division. Like many other recruits his age, he wasn't afraid. "My relatives were in the service,'' he explained. "Many of the guys I grew up with were there already.''  

He started as an M-60 machine gunner. Eight months later, he was driving an Armored Personnel Carrier. Saldana was managing until April Fool's Day 1970. What happened, however, was no joke. 

His company was in the process of securing an LZ when they were ambushed. Grenades and shrapnel caused casualties everywhere. To this day, Saldana is not sure if it was the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army behind the surprise attack. It doesn't matter. 

The next thing he knew, he was on a stretcher in a medevac helicopter. The right hand was a certain goner, and there was a good chance that he would lose his left arm, as well. But somehow the doctors in Japan saved it. Saldana was soon in a hospital in San Francisco, uncertain about the future.  

He had wanted to be a firefighter, but that was no longer a possibility. "I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back home,'' he said, "or what I wanted to do. I had left home in one piece. I didn't want to come back in a bunch of pieces.'' 

But, as his family and friends visited him, it didn't take long for Saldana to realize that he was one of the lucky ones. "There were people with no arms and no legs,'' he said. "I figured I was in pretty good shape compared to most of them. Seeing my family kept my mind in a good place. Otherwise, I really don't know what I would have done.''  

Back in Catalina, a picturesque island about 20 miles from Long Beach, Saldana spent his aimless years, going from one downtown Avalon bar to another. Yet even in the midst of this period of despair, he found a way to get back into golf. As a youngster, he had played with his brothers and also had been a caddie.  

At first, he tried to hit balls with a prosthetic, but it was too difficult. Frustrated, he quit. Friends invited him to play, but he refused. Finally, a year or two later, he decided to try again. This time, though, he opted to play the game without the device.  

One day, while looking for errant golf balls, he took a swing at the ball with one  arm. "It went pretty well,'' he said. "So I hit a couple more.'' He had found a way to enjoy the game again. For good.  

It wasn't too long after that revelation, in 1976, when Saldana recorded his first hole in one. It came on the 114-yard second hole. He used a six iron. It also won him a $10 bet. 

About a year later, Saldana got his next one, and soon they were becoming almost routine - so routine that it takes him some time to recall exactly how many aces he's recorded on any specific hole. He knows that he once had three aces in one year, two of them, amazingly enough, within a four-day span. The most recent ace came in May of 2001, and it felt just as good, if not better, than the others.

So how does Saldana, who has never taken any formal golf lessons, rack up ace after ace?  

For starters, there are the mechanics of his swing. It's unique, that's for sure. He swings with his left arm only, which reinforces the long-held theory of how important the left arm is for a right-handed golfer's swing. The stub that used to be his right hand rests slightly on the grip to give him some stability, but then is quickly released as he goes into his backswing. Many of his shots are hit low, with a left-to-right trajectory that allows the ball to roll toward its intended target. His aces are not as accidental as they may seem. 

"When he hits the ball on the green, it's got topspin which results in a truer roll,'' said Al Casillas, the course's starter, who has played many rounds with Saldana.

At the course, everybody knows Saldana. They call him "Clams,'' though most of them don't have a clue why. They say that it has something to do with a radio disc jockey who used to be on the air in the 1970s.  

What they are certain of, however, is how much they admire him. "He inspires people,'' Casillas said. "He's so amazing. He knows how far to hit every single iron, and he is one of the best golfers on the island.'' 

His example goes far beyond the island. After a recent article about him appeared in a national golf magazine, Saldana received a phone call from a man who had suffered a stroke. The caller had given up the game, but after reading the piece, decided to give it one more chance. 

"That felt great to be able to help someone like that,'' Saldana said. "I've talked to him a few times. I realize that what I did really did motivate him.'' 

Saldana has been so accepted, in fact, that, as Casillas puts it, "you really don't think about the fact that he plays with only one arm. He is just one of the guys.'' 

Richard Saldana is more than just a guy who collects a lot of aces. His all-around game is outstanding. He is able to get up and down from some very awkward places to save his par and knows how to manage his game extremely well. At times, distance can be a problem, which is why it's hard for him to score exceptionally well on the longer mainland courses he sometimes plays, though he has been known to shoot in the high 80s and low 90s. He plays to about a 10 handicap. His low at the nine-hole Catalina course - the second oldest in California - is a nifty 29. 

Saldana is also known for his sense of compassion. Even when he was going through his worst times after the injuries, his brother Frank recalls, he was able to think of someone else. 

"I, myself, was a pretty big drinker in those days,'' said Frank Saldana, "and despite what he was going through, he was telling me that I shouldn't drink. He was suggesting that I slow down. He has had a lot to do with straightening out my life.'' 

The two brothers enjoy competing against each other. Frank used to beat Richard all the time, but a few years ago, at the Catalina Men's Club tournament, the younger brother turned things around. 

Frank didn't mind. 

Even with his great love for golf, Saldana still thinks about the war, especially on April 1st. Friends call him to make sure he's not too bummed out. He appreciates their concern. "I'm just glad I'm around,'' he said. "I did the best I could for my country. That's what America is all about.'' 

He still has the Timex watch he was wearing on that day in 1970. It registers the exact time - 11:20 a.m. - when the ambush came. The arm that was saved still hurts from time to time, especially when the weather gets cold. He can't lift it up very high. He can't hear certain high-pitch sounds. Fortunately, though, he no longer has any nightmares. 

His wife Kathy, whom he married in 1991, is his biggest cheerleader. "He's awesome in how he conducts himself,'' she said. "He's very low key, not showy. He has a subtle strength, doing what he's got to do to play his game.'' 

She says her husband has been opening up more and more in recent years about his war experiences, especially after something on television triggers those memories. "He's a very noble person,'' she said. "He lives with a lot.'' 

Yet Saldana has also found time to give something back. He donates golf clubs to kids in town. "I've been doing that for about 20 years,'' he said. "It's great to see the kids go out and play with these clubs for a while. It helps get them going in the game.'' 

With many years of golf ahead of him, Saldana figures he's got a good chance to record a few more aces. "I don't see why not,'' he said. "When I had 13 of them, a guy told me it was bad luck, and I wouldn't get any more. The ball is still going all around the hole. They just haven't been going in.'' 

But that doesn't matter. What matters is that Richard Saldana is out there playing, enjoying life, full of optimism about the future.   

   

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