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