Pinehurst, N.C. – Ask Ken Eichele how many times he has attempted to qualify for a USGA championship and there is a discernable pause in the conversation.
Considering that the 60-year-old Eichele began playing competitively when he helped form the golf team at Bishop Reilly High School in Queens, N.Y., and for years played between 150 and 250 days annually, the answer is buried somewhere among the years and rounds.
“Oh gosh … ,” said Eichele. “I can’t even begin to count.”
He qualified for the 1980 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and later was given a special exemption into the 2002 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship. As for the qualifiers, though, there have been too many and not many worth remembering.
Except for one.
A Day He’ll Never Forget
On this particular Tuesday morning, a dense fog finally relented and gave way to a spectacular early September day in the Metropolitan New York area.
“As soon as the fog lifted it was just a gorgeous, gorgeous day,” said Eichele, who was among the first to tee off in a U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship qualifier at Bedford Golf and Tennis Club in Westchester County, N.Y. “Just a perfect day to be playing golf.”
Eichele, a Fire Department of New York battalion chief, was attempting to earn a spot in the championship field at San Joaquin Country Club in Fresno, Calif. His round was going well as he made the turn, walking off the 18th green and across the parking lot to the first hole.
It was then he encountered a friend, a fellow firefighter who was getting out of his car to begin preparation for his later starting time.
“Did you hear?” the friend asked.
“Hear what?” Eichele wondered.
“A plane hit the World Trade Center.”
“What kind of plane?”
“A small Piper Cub or something.”
Eichele thought about the unfortunate accident, but continued on with his round. Through 14 holes Eichele was even par when a second firefighter friend with a late tee time frantically sought him out.
“Planes have hit the World Trade Center,” his friend said.
“I know, I heard, a Piper Cub hit them,” Eichele said.
“No, no, no. Two jetliners hit the Trade Center. They’re gone.”
“What do you mean they’re gone?”
“They’re gone, they’ve collapsed.”
By then, Sept. 11, 2001, had been officially etched in a nation’s consciousness.
Eichele was told the bridges and tunnels into the city were blocked; there was no way of gaining access. So Eichele finished his round — though to this day cannot remember his score — and headed to the locker room to witness for himself the television replays and reports.
Seeing the chaos, the hell that it was, Eichele knew his FDNY brethren were in peril.
“I said, I’ve got to get back in,” Eichele said.
As a battalion chief, Eichele was able to persuade authorities to part foot traffic out of the city in order for him to make his way back to his firehouse.
“Once I got to ground zero, even after all that I had seen on the TV in the locker room at Bedford, it was worse than I was thinking the whole time I was driving in,” he said. “It was unbelievable, it was surreal … you just couldn’t believe the devastation.”
As Eichele assessed the situation, a seventh building, a 47-story skyscraper, collapsed due to fire.
“No one wants to talk about it to this day, why it collapsed,” he said. “It wasn’t hit by anything, it was just the fires. People keep saying they can’t collapse because of fires, but they obviously can. It’s something you never see discussed.”
Eichele was nearly helpless. Nine of the men in Eichele’s own Engine Company who were working that day died. The chief on duty for Eichele that day was inside one of the Trade Center buildings when it collapsed, but survived.
“We were just trying to dig out people,” he said. “The biggest thing, the miracle of 9/11 was that we didn’t lose anybody in the rescue and recovery. I was so nervous about that.
“All safety protocols went out the window. I was letting people go, and I was going with them. Because if they were going to get killed, I was going to get killed with them and I was going in first.”
Rescue attempts took Eichele into confined spaces with little to no support and with the knowledge that shifts in massive piles could result in certain death.
“We were hopeful we would find someone, but we didn’t, other than one woman the following afternoon,” he said.
After 28 years in the department, Eichele figured he had seen and experienced the worst: colleagues, even friends, losing their lives while attempting to save others. The New York Presbyterian Hospital Burn Center was also in his Manhattan district, and he was responsible for talking to FDNY firemen who were treated in the unit and notifying families of the critically injured.
“You saw some pretty horrific things there too ... talking to guys I knew were going to die in an hour or two. That was never a nice part of the job. But nothing like 9/11. Nothing even compares.
“So many people had real good friends, brothers, fathers, sons. There was no way you were going to tell them they couldn’t go in and look for them. You tried to make it as safe as you could, which really wasn’t that safe.”
Eichele was one of the fortunate.
Yes, he lost friends. He had come to know many of the firefighters throughout his district and the city. By his estimation, he knew more than 100 who lost their lives.
And Eichele lost 16 percent of his lung function as a result of the smoke and dust inhalation.
“I can’t run marathons, but I didn’t run marathons, so it doesn’t bother me,” he said, trying to lighten the somberness of the topic. “The psychological scars? Not so much, so I feel blessed.”
A Game For Life
In retrospect, that Sept. 11 USGA qualifier may have saved Eichele’s life. There is some irony there, because it was golf that nudged Eichele to become a firefighter.
Eichele grew up across from a municipal course, Kissena Park Golf Course, a par-64 layout designed by John Van Kleek that opened in 1934. He and his neighborhood buddies would “go over, under or through the fence” after the workers left at 4 p.m. — “and not a minute later,” he said.
Rounds consisted of playing holes 2-17 so as not to be spotted by anyone lingering around the clubhouse. When he was older and could drive, his buddies would park a car near an outer perimeter green and let the headlights serve as floodlights for putting contests.
Eichele took up golf at age 6 with only a Spalding 3-iron in hand. At 8, Eichele needed just one trip with his father on the train into the city to know where he could find more clubs.
“We took the train into Times Square to the sporting goods store,” he said, noting that Daveega Stores sold individual clubs for $2.98. “After that I would save up my money and I would go into the city by myself. I got on where the train began and got off where it ended. It was pretty simple to remember.”
A self-taught golfer, Eichele, who won the N.Y. City Amateur as a teen, played in high school and later at Queens College, where home matches were contested at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course and where he earned a degree in accounting.
Not long after graduation and working as a certified public accountant did Eichele realize he was not meant for a desk job.
Eichele, at the urging of a friend, had previously taken the FDNY entry test.
“I had no plans to take the job, but I saw the hours he had and I was really starting to get into competitive golf,” said Eichele, who joined the department in 1973. “Being a fireman in the New York area, you work 24 hours straight and have 72 hours off, so it gives you a lot of free time off during the week, and I was able to switch days. So if I had a tournament on Tuesday-Wednesday and I had to work, I could ask another guy if we could switch and I would work for him Thursday-Friday.”
At his best, Eichele was a plus-3 handicap. Today, despite a few arthritic joints and a nagging disk in his lower back, he is a 4 handicap. After retiring in 2003 and moving to North Carolina, Eichele won consecutive Harris Teeter Senior Amateur Tour Championships in 2004 and 2005. He also was a runner-up at the North & South Senior Championship.
Whether Eichele would have qualified for the 2001 U.S. Mid-Amateur is uncertain. The 9/11 round was canceled and rescheduled, but Eichele could not play due to the aftermath — the cleanup, the memorials.
Then-USGA Executive Director David Fay called Eichele and offered him an exemption into the following month’s championship in Fresno, but Eichele had to decline. He did accept the USGA’s offer of an exemption into the 2002 Mid-Amateur at The Stanwich Club in Connecticut.
“I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack and didn’t make it to match play, but the members were great to me. I wished I could have played better for them,” Eichele said.
Today, Eichele and his wife June live in Pinehurst, N.C. His home, not surprisingly, is just off the 18th hole of Pinehurst’s No. 6 course. He does not mind talking about 9/11, saying that in some respects it is cathartic.
Eichele said he does not need a ceremony or an anniversary to remind him of that September day. In his office there is a photo collage of the 343 firemen who died on 9/11, and he reflects on it often.
“I wish they were here, but I surely won’t forget them,” he said. “I will never forget them.”
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on USGA championship websites