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Former Air Force colonel wins even without title

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- James Gallagher has played his first three rounds of the Eastern Amateur at Elizabeth Manor Golf and Country Club without a caddie.

While playing solo is not uncommon at this tournament, it seems odd that one of the oldest players on the course wouldn't have a youngster hauling his clubs.

"If you have somebody who would like to volunteer, I'm happy to have a caddy for tomorrow," he said with a laugh.

But then again for Gallagher, he is no stranger to doing things the hard way.

Sitting at even par through the conclusion of his second and third rounds on Saturday, Gallagher is well behind the pace set by leader Christopher Hickman. The rising junior from East Tennessee State is 20 under, seven shots clear of second-place Riley Davenport (University of Charlotte).

Gallagher served in the Air Force for 27 years before retiring as a colonel. Along the way, he broke his back twice in the line of duty.

The first incident happened in 1991 during the Gulf War, though he didn't realize it was broken at the time. Gallagher would finally undergo surgery in 2001, but it did not fix the problem.

A year later, Gallagher fractured his back again. He underwent an experimental procedure to resolve the issue. Doctors were so concerned with how his body would respond that Gallagher signed a waiver stating he would never play golf or any other sport that involved running or jumping.

Gallagher returned to duty in 2003. After going through war, he figured it was safe to return to the links.

Gallagher said he told the surgeon "Hey, I have been schlepping it, 40-pound rucksack, and a rifle, and ammo, and a radio, calling in air strikes all around, all through Iraq for the last year. I think I can play golf."

After a 20-month absence, Gallagher returned to the sport.

"The first time I took a swing, I didn't know if I was going to break in half," he said.
"I still see shots I think I can hit, but I can't hit them anymore."

The 55-year old has been used to playing golf, and living life for that matter, with a disadvantage. Born with Poland Syndrome, Gallagher's left arm is shorter and weaker than his right. He's also missing a left pectoral muscle and without a knuckle in his left thumb.

"I don't let it be a big deal," he said. "Why should it be a big deal?

"I had that attitude all my life about that, and that's probably the attitude that I needed to get through all the things that happened with my back."

Gallagher grew up with an adopted family, and he said he was a natural with a golf club. He was on the verge of turning pro in 1981 before he suffered a knee injury playing basketball. In need of money to pay off students loans, he enlisted in the Air Force. He didn't play golf again until 1994.

Gallagher, who lives in Yorktown with his wife Debbie, is preparing to play in the Senior British Open later this summer. Gallagher also qualified for the British Open in 1999, but was unable to play because he was needed in Kosovo at the time.

Before he heads overseas, Gallagher is enjoying the now.

"I just played 18 holes of golf with Steve Liebler and Adam Horton. Steve and Adam are top-notch golfers in anybody's venue," he said, at this point starting to choke up. "To be able to go out and play golf with them, it's not just fun, it's a feeling of satisfaction that I've beaten this.... I win. I didn't let it get me."

So, anyone want to volunteer to caddie for this guy?

paul.eldert@pilotonline.com

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