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One arm, one hole-in-one

Amputee golfer defies odds with 'emotional' ace in first full round
by: Becca Quint Rich LeBle, 62, lost his right arm to cancer 17 months ago. Recently, he has been learning to hit golf balls with his left arm. Late last month, he gave son Sean and grandson Jordan the thrill of a lifetime with an 8-iron at Camas Meadows.

He is 62 years old, and 12 days ago, he got his first hole-in-one in 45 years of golf. That's not a bad story in itself.

But it's only a small part of the story of Rich LeBle.

In March 2010, after years of battling cancer, the Camas, Wash., resident had his right arm amputated at the shoulder.

It was a last resort for LeBle, who with wife Loretta owns four Wendy's restaurants in Southwest Washington.

And while it's easy to feel sorry for a man dealing with such severe health issues, the last thing Rich LeBle would do is feel sorry for himself.

He continued to operate his businesses and ski and play a little golf, though he was only a 25-handicapper even before a sarcoma was discovered on his right arm in 2004.

So when LeBle took out an 8-iron and lofted a one-armed shot that flew high and directly at the cup on the 109-yard eighth hole at Camas Meadows Golf Club, his son, Sean, was suddenly praying for a miracle.

'I was watching it go and thinking, 'Just one time, go in for him,' ' says Sean, 35. 'Then, plunk. And we celebrated. It was amazing.'

Rich and Sean were playing in a scramble in a foursome that included Sean's son, Jordan, 17. Rich was a last-minute addition after another player had canceled.

It was LeBle's first 18-hole round since the surgery that gave him a new lease on life.

Phantom pain

A New York City native, LeBle came west to work for Wendy's in 1981. Eventually, Sean became an operating partner of his father's franchises.

A college soccer player and athletic his entire life, the 6-1, 185-pound LeBle had always enjoyed a lifetime of good health.

'Never had surgery before,' he says. 'Never been in a hospital before.'

In late 2004, after a session of trap shooting, the right-handed LeBle felt a lump in his right shoulder. A medical exam revealed a tumor.

During the next five years, LeBle endured five surgeries 'and a lot of pain and suffering,' he says.

After the first surgery in 2005, he lost total use of the right arm. During the next couple of years, he regained some use of the arm, and was able to remain active and even play some golf - 'though not well,' he says.

Soon he went through bouts of radiation and was on a chemotherapy pill plan for six months - 'I thought it was going to kill me,' he says.

LeBle underwent a six-month cancer treatment trial 'that worked for me, controlled the tumor for a while,' he says.

By 2010, though, the pain was so great that he finally opted for amputation surgery at Oregon Health and Science University Hospital.

'They took the back of my arm and folded it up to my neck,' he says. 'It was a 'V' surgery rather than a circular surgery and had been done on only a couple of people before me. But it was very successful.'

After a week in the hospital, 'I went through three to four months where I couldn't leave the sofa,' he says. 'The pain was incredible.'

Fifteen months later, LeBle remains in a healing pattern.

'I still have 'phantom pain,' ' he says. 'The left brain still thinks my arm is there. But the pain is much better now. I don't know if it will ever go away, but I'm on a very low dose of medication now. I can sleep normally, ski, play golf.'

In recent months, LeBle was involved in a few scrambles with his son, but basically he just hit shots around the green and putted. He was still experimenting with his swing.

LeBle - who has never had a golf lesson, before or after amputation - chose to play right-handed, swinging with what had been his off-arm.

'It feels weak, like I'm hitting a (tennis) backhand with one hand,' he says. 'But I love to play in scrambles. I wasn't hitting very well, but having a ball.'

Feeling blessed

On June 23 at Camas Meadows, LeBle was in the middle of the first round in which he was hitting every shot when he came upon the fateful eighth hole.

He was first off the tee.

'I normally wear my glasses, but I had just taken them off because it was warm and I was sweating,' he says.

As a result, he didn't get a good look as the perfectly launched shot flew into the hole.

'It was my best hit all day,' he says. 'We all heard it. And I was like, 'Oh my God, that went in.' The heart started pounding. I was hugging everybody.'

Sean has a video of the aftermath on his iPhone. He is clearly tickled for his father, and ultimately quite proud.

'It's like, 'Wow,' ' he says. 'A year (after amputation), he is out golfing with one arm. I can't imagine. I tried to do it just to see what it feels like, played a couple of holes, and it's impossible.

'Our family has been through a lot the last several years. When it happened, we all got emotional. It was awesome. I don't even know how to describe it.'

When he got into the clubhouse at the end of the round, word spread quickly. LeBle wound up at the bar, buying a round of drinks for the house.

'Cost me about $100,' he says, 'but it was worth every penny.'

As LeBle conducts an interview, a gentleman with his right arm in a sling approaches. The man, 79, tells LeBle he has a paralyzed arm from a skiing accident 3 1/2 years ago. He is back to playing golf - 'I shoot 100 on a good day,' he says - and is interested in LeBle's situation. They chat for a moment, exchange business cards and agree to communicate.

LeBle has thought about converting to a left-handed swing, which might offer more power. A friend who owns a golf equipment company made him five left-handed clubs.

'I haven't touched them yet,' he says, 'but I will.

'After the hole-in-one, though, I'm not sure I want to change.'

LeBle continues to deal with the pain.

'On a scale of one to 10,' he says, 'I'm probably at a three or four. Without the meds, it's probably a six or seven. But it's so much better. I'm able to live my life.'

Talking about his life now, LeBle chokes up.

'When you go through … stuff, you know,' he says.

After a long pause, he continues: 'I never thought I was going to die, but it's in the back of your mind. Fortunately, the cancer didn't spread. I'm in remission. I get checked every six months.

'But I'm so grateful,' he says. 'To go snow skiing with my grandkids, to play golf with my grandson - it's unbelievable.'

LeBle says he is more dedicated to golf now. He wants to play more, and better. And he has no regrets about the amputation of his arm.

'It beats the alternative,' he says. 'I feel good. I have a great family. I'm blessed to have a good business and great support all around.'

It's the makings of a very good story, indeed.