Remembering 9/11: Eichele describes 'that day'

Ken Eichele

Ken Eichele

Sometimes, the deeds of our golf heroes go far beyond the game.

Ken Eichele has played in two U.S. Golf Association national championships. For decades, he was one of the finest public-course players in New York.

Yet Eichele will long be known as the face of golf in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy. It’s a distinction that has everything to do with his determination to aid others and little to do with his golf ability.

Though he sought no recognition, Eichele, at the time a New York City firefighter, became golf’s most visible representative in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center and The Pentagon.

Eichele frequently has been quoted as calling himself “the most overexposed average guy you’ll ever meet,” but it is likely he will never again be an average anything. His life was changed forever by that infamous day.

Now 60 and retired in Pinehurst, N.C., Eichele is a frequent competitor in national points events on the senior amateur circuit. There is a scene that repeats itself at these tournaments and at the Pinehurst Resort, where he regularly plays golf.

“Somebody will come up to me and ask, ‘Aren’t you the guy?’ ” Eichele said, “and before they can say anything more, I tell them, ‘Yes, I’m the guy.’

“I don’t mind people asking about it, and I don’t mind talking about it. Golf is a wonderful game that unites all kinds of people, and that day (9/11) was something that all of us experienced in one way or another. It brought all of us together.”

As it unfolded, “that day” was even more intense for Eichele than for most of us.

He was a battalion chief with the New York City Fire Department, and he had arranged his schedule to play in a U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier in Bedford, N.Y. He drew a starting time in the first group of the day.

On the ninth hole, he heard that a plane had flown into the World Trade Center. There were few details. On the 14th hole, he learned the whole story.

The qualifier was canceled, and Eichele embarked on a frantic journey to reach Manhattan. All New York City bridges had been closed, and he was turned away in his efforts to drive to the site.

Finally he was escorted through throngs of pedestrians by a New York City police commander, who walked in front of Eichele’s car to clear the way.

“It was chaos,” Eichele said. “I knew fireman had died. I knew the rest of us were going to be there for a long time.”

Days later, exhausted, he looked in a mirror and managed to recognize the man who the week before had been playing in a U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier. Barely.

“I lost my voice,” he said. “I was wheezing and coughing constantly. Later, the doctors would tell me that I lost 16 to 18 percent of my lung function. It hasn’t come back, but it hasn’t gotten any worse, either.

“I never smoked. I was always big in athletics. But I went from the top percentile (in lung capacity) to average. They track us every year now.”

The physical challenges and demands of firefighting also left him with back pain that at times is severe. How severe?

“Well, I’ve got a pain-management doctor, if that answers the question,” Eichele said. “She’s a golfer, so that helps.”

After his 9/11 story received national publicity, Eichele fielded an unexpected phone call from David Fay, then-executive director of the USGA.

“David Fay,” said Eichele, somewhat in awe. “Would you believe it? What an honor. He called me himself.”

Fay was offering more than a thank-you. He dangled an unprecedented exemption to the U.S. Mid-Amateur. Eichele, drained by the 9/11 ordeal, declined the invitation for 2001 but accepted for the 2002 Mid-Am. Previously he had qualified for the 1980 U.S. Amateur Public Links.

Fay also asked about the USGA donating a firetruck to the New York Fire Department.

“Do you know how much those things cost?” Eichele asked.

Fay didn’t, but the answer was, as much as $800,000. The USGA ended up donating an ambulance.

Eichele, a New York native, retired in October 2003 after 30 years as a firefighter.

Now he has time to live his golf dream and reflect on his experiences. He and his wife, June, often travel together on golf trips. They have become one of amateur golf’s most endearing couples, and Eichele will tell anyone how lucky he is.

“This is the way we planned it,” he said. “I always intended to work 30 years and retire. We have a house on the 18th hole of the (Pinehurst) No. 6 course.”

He concedes that he misses New York and his old friends and comrades. But life and golf have a way of rewarding persistence, so Eichele returns to New York City every year. At Pinehurst, he plays as much golf as his back will allow.

As a firefighter, with a normal schedule of 24 hours on and 72 hours off, he was able to play 150 rounds annually. He estimates he played 50 different courses each year.

He makes a point of playing Pinehurst No. 2 at least once a week. In 2014, the course will host its third U.S. Open and, in an unprecedented move by the USGA, with the U.S. Women’s Open to follow one week later.

Eichele grew up in Queens, his house separated from the municipal, par-64 Kissena Park Golf Course by several vacant lots and some swampland. Nobody in his family played golf, but at 6 he bought his first golf club (“It was a 3-iron, and it cost $3”) and started whacking golf balls.

“In those days, the course was run by the Parks Department,” he said. “They would quit work at 4 in the afternoon. At 4:01, we would hop the fence and play. We were a bunch of kids who didn’t have any money, and that was the only way you could learn the game.”

Eventually Eichele completed his 3-5-7-9 set of irons and added woods. His homemade swing, coupled with his natural athletic ability, began paying dividends.

He never stopped playing. And, with all due respect for the back pain that bedevils him, he never will. At least that’s the plan.

He was at the Pinehurst clubhouse a few days before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and learned the resort was publicizing his taped appearance (scheduled for Sept. 11) on Golf Channel.

Then he met someone whom he didn’t know, a visitor to the resort, and eventually he heard the question: “Hey, aren’t you . . .?”

Then came the answer -- “Yes, I’m the guy” -- followed by the stories of life and golf as only a true warrior and hero can tell them.

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