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Wounded warrior's unusual path to golf

Thursday - 5/22/2014, 6:40am  ET

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Ramon Padilla didn't take up the game until after he was wounded in Afghanistan. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

WASHINGTON -- Ramon Padilla is a good golfer. He's an 11 handicap and looking to cut that figure into single digits.

His path to the golf course was painful, trying and unusual. He plays the game with one healthy arm and a research device substituting for the other.

Padilla grew up in the Los Angeles area, cheering on the Dodgers, Lakers and Raiders. Golf was not part of his life, and he admits to thinking a golf broadcast on television would ruin his day if it meant missing one of his favorite teams.

His remarkable journey began with terror. Serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan, Padilla was returning from patrol July 8, 2007.

Suddenly, there was an explosion.

Like other wounded warriors, he knew in an instant that life -- should he survive -- would be different.

"Shrapnel severed the left side of my arm, and I also took a round to the right side of the head, which broke a piece of my skull off and caused a traumatic brain injury," Padilla says.

* * * * *

Almost seven years later, Padilla uses a prosthesis for daily activities. His head bears the scars from the attack.

The research device he employs implants electrodes inside his muscles, allowing movement in the prosthetic fingers and thumbs -- much like he would have before the attack.

"All I have to do is think about doing the movement, and it does the movement," he says.

Electrodes inside Padilla's muscles allow movement in his fingers and thumbs. (WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

But even that wasn't sufficient for him to swing a golf club. The wrist action was lacking, he says.

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he helped design a device that could make golf a possibility. It's known as a "pinch hitter," with an attachment called the "robo wrist," which provides the wrist action necessary to swing a golf club.

The golf clubs he uses have a wider-than-normal grip to provide stability.

"I'm not cheating using a prosthetic device," he insists, almost in defense of his golfing success. "I have the same faults others do."

If so, he's managed to limit them. Playing in the Golf Channel Amateur Tour, Padilla has won four events, which he credits to the help of the Salute Military Golf Association.

In total, he spent two and a half years at Walter Reed for his rehab.

"Little by little I have to work it, hopefully bringing my handicap down to single digits," he says.

* * * * *

Golfers find all sorts of ways to get out on the course: Relaxation. Business. Charity.

"I use golf as therapy," Padilla says. "I use golf for rehab."

He's come to see elements of the game as metaphors for life. Should I go for it? Should I play it safe? What's my target?

"Once I came to Walter Reed, they gave me this opportunity," he says. "I took it, and I fell in love with it."

Since picking up the game, Padilla has taken his whole family out to the course. While the struggles may be frustrating at times, he says it helps him with patience.

"In the long run, that's good for me," he says.

Padilla shared his story during the annual National Golf Day event on Capitol Hill and wants to help other wounded warriors recover.

He's even light-hearted about his late, if undesirable, path to the game.

"A lot of pros tell me that it was probably fortunate that I learned after [the injuries] because I have no bad habits," he jokes.

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