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One Hand, One Shot--Golfer Hits It 8 Times

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Richard Saldana was on the seventh tee at the Catalina Island Golf Club, ready to try for another hole in one; he had shot his eighth a few weeks ago. They marvel at that in the barbershop down the hill. And they say a steel helmet saved Saldana’s life when his right hand was blown off in Vietnam.

Saldana stood in a right-hander’s position and held a 3-iron with his left hand. He used the stump at the end of his right arm to steady the club. As he swung, he pulled the stump away just before hitting the ball, and followed through with his left arm.

The ball soared toward the flag 203 yards away.

“Not another one,” said Gil Voci, who was in the foursome.

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But this time, the ball stopped 12 feet short of the hole.

“You realize,” playing partner Buddy O’Jibway said, “how amazing this guy is?”

A short man with a stomach he admits beer has greatly expanded, Saldana wore a baseball cap, shorts and a T-shirt with the crossed-swords insignia of his old Army unit, the 11th Armored Cavalry.

“A little more and that thing goes in,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone as he got back in his cart. Sipping from a can of beer, he drove down a fairway bordered by fat palms and overlooked by mountain ridges that touched clouds.

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This is the easygoing Saldana’s island, where, like the 10 brothers and sisters before him, he was born and reared. This is the course where he caddied as a boy and learned the game from his brothers.

Now, at 44, his amazing golf feats have made him the talk of the town in Avalon.

“It makes me feel like I can do something,” he said.

After a moment’s thought, he added, “This is about all I do.”

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There was a time when Saldana thought he would never do much of anything again.

He was a 24-year-old specialist fourth class when, during a midday Viet Cong ambush in 1969, a rocket grenade hit the ammunition can in the personnel carrier he was driving. In the blast’s aftermath, his right hand dangled from his wrist; it was later removed at a field hospital. The muscles in his left arm were severely damaged.

Reminders remain. His left arm is scarred, and he says the stump throbs and his ears ring constantly.

After the ambush, Saldana spent 3 1/2 months in a Veterans Administration hospital in San Francisco, then returned to Avalon. “I was all bummed out,” he said. “I didn’t want to go out.”

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A 1963 graduate of Avalon High School, Saldana had been a volunteer fireman before he was drafted, and had hoped to join the Avalon Fire Department after the service. “I didn’t think about it after that, didn’t think it would work out,” he said.

He had also worked at the Catalina Bird Farm. But the farm, a home to the exotic birds he fed, had closed by the time Saldana returned from the war--not that he would have had much interest in working there again.

“For three years I didn’t want to do anything,” he said.

But he had the support of many friends and his close-knit family. “All I did was hang around them,” he said.

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Martan Saldana, a gardener, moved to Santa Catalina Island from Mexico in 1919. He met Margarita Mesa a year later, and they soon were married. All of their children have stayed on the island.

Angie Romo, 65, and Isabel Lopez, 64, are homemakers; Margarita Ponce, 58, is an employee of the Catalina By the Sea souvenir shop; Ruth Sampson, 55, works at Leo’s Drug Store; Frank Saldana, 53, works at Abe’s Liquor Store; Herman, 51, helps take care of the island’s interior; Joe, 50, is the golf club champion; Sylvester, 48, owns a landscaping business, and Lolo, 60, runs the barber shop. The oldest brother, Martan, 61, died last year.

“Everybody cares about everybody here,” Richard Saldana said. “When I was in the hospital, I got a shoe box full of letters from the island. All of my family and friends visited me.”

Sampson recalled the time her brother came home from San Francisco: “We felt worse than he did. I took care of the wounds, he had a lot of shrapnel in his arms.”

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The sweet smell of a green liquid called Osage Rub, which Lolo applies to the heads of his customers, filled his barber shop.

“It’s pretty much all over town,” he said about his brother’s latest ace. “Bobby Piacentini was in here the other day and said, ‘Geez, I’ve played golf for 35 years and haven’t got one.’ ”

The walls of the sports-oriented shop are busy with pennants, photos and paintings, as well as rosters of youth baseball teams.

The Saldanas have stayed on Catalina, Lolo said, because of its slow pace and their sense of belonging. “We’re all involved in community activities,” said the barber, whose son, Gilbert, is a former Avalon mayor.

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Ed Jordan, whose hair was being cut, is the handicap chairman at the golf course. He assessed Richard Saldana’s golfing ability: “An excellent putter. Not really long on his drives, but steady. Nerves of steel.”

“He’s proud,” Lolo chimed in. “What he does, he likes to do right.”

During his long rehabilitation, Richard Saldana had figured that he was through with golf.

“I tried to play,” he said. “I had a hook screwed into my stump and it was attached to a golf club, but it didn’t work right. So I forgot about it. Gave my clubs away.”

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Roger Cadman, 40, who cleans fish at the Avalon Fish Market, remembered the day during that period when he tricked Saldana into showing him how to hit a golf ball. “He hit the ball well with his left hand,” Cadman said. “I think he was surprised. It got his confidence up.”

Saldana, who has an 11 handicap, shot his first hole in one eight years ago. Two years later, he got two in a week. All of his aces have occurred at the Catalina course: two on the 114-yard second hole; two on the 124-yard sixth; three on the 159-yard ninth, and one--the most recent--on the 203-yard seventh.

He finds it hard to pinpoint a reason for such stunning success. “Yeah, it does surprise me,” he said.

Last Friday afternoon, Saldana was teamed with O’Jibway, Gil Voci and Jim Wright in a best-ball match.

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“The town hustler we call him,” Wright said.

“No, I just play,” Saldana said, laughing softly. Nonetheless, Saldana, who gets a monthly veteran’s disability pension, gladly pocketed his winnings after the match.

He lives with fiancee Kathy Emerson in the same three-story house, with its postcard view of rooftops and the harbor, where he has lived since he was in the sixth grade.

He appreciates it when the Catalina Islander weekly newspaper runs a little item on him now and then, but he does not believe he is considered a celebrity. “I doubt it,” he said. “I’m just around here.”

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He usually takes a walk in the morning, then goes to the nine-hole course to play two, sometimes three rounds of golf a day. But the best time comes late in the afternoon at Silky’s, a bar near the course named for Silky Reyes, who was the pro there when Saldana was a youngster.

Last Friday, there was a baseball game on the TV, the mountaintops could be seen through the small square windows up near the ceiling, and the beer and sports talk flowed in liberal amounts.

Saldana kept his hat on and sat at a table with a group that included Voci, O’Jibway, Jordan and Joe Machado.

“He’s such a nice person,” said O’Jibway, a short-haired, red-faced man who rents boats. “He does anything to help you out.”

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Teri Gill, a regular at Silky’s, came over to the table. She looked at Saldana and said to a visitor, “He’s one of the most special guys in the world.”

The guys at the barber shop had probably been right about the helmet having saved Saldana’s life.

But in this room, with the sun slanting in on the one-handed man who could not have looked happier, it was clear that it was golf that saved it the second time.


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