Ken Eichel’s formative years as a golfer are the stuff of a some sort of Disney movie, where a 6-year-old city kid from Queens picks up a sport designed for the privileged, country club set.
“I started out at a New York City Public Course, a ratty par-64 that was across the street,” says Eichele. “The employees at the course were from the Parks Department, so every day when it turned 4, they were out the door, and every day when it turned 4, me and some of the neighborhood kids were over the fence.”
Eichele said his mother didn’t mind the minor transgression at the Kissena Golf Club, especially compared to all the other mischief there was to find in the city.
“She didn’t worry about me because she always knew where I was.”
Those early games were probably a bit frustrating for a young golfer, especially since the only club he had was a 3-iron, which was used as drive, chip, putt and anything in between. Growing up without the means to purchase a complete set, Eichele had to hustle to obtain his clubs one by one.
“I’d collect golf balls that went over the fence near my house or find them out on the course and sell them back to the golfers for about a quarter apiece, for the good ones,” he said. “They cost $2.98 at the only store that carried clubs in Manhattan, so when I saved up enough I’d take the train out there and buy another one for the set.”
The 7-iron was the next addition after the 3, and after about a year-and-a-half, Eichele had himself a full set: 3,5,7,9, driver and putter.
While most of his friends eventually gave up the game, Eichele started the golf team at his high school, and eventually went on to play on the Queens College golf team.
“We were the best around, but we had some characters on that team,” he said. “Headbands, long hair, beer T-shirts. One time, Columbia, this supposed liberal institution that played their matches in Westchester County, told us if we don’t cut our hair they wouldn’t schedule us next year.”
The Queens College team didn’t cut their hair, and Columbia still played them, and lost, the next year.
“I was in college from 68-72, same time as all the protests and stuff, they were hippies, and I was the straight guy,” says Eichele with a laugh. “I’m still friendly with a lot of them even now. Many of them are now big businessmen in the city.”
Eichele would go on to graduate college and become a New York City firefighter. In 2001 he was trying to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Am in Bedford, NY, when he, like so many others in that city, and particularly in that profession, where profoundly changed by the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
He got news of the events while on the course and immediately tried to fight his way back to the city. Before leaving he saw video of the towers falling at the course, knowing immediately what it meant to those he knew and loved. He was a Battalion Chief in charge of multiple firehouses in Manhattan.
“I can count probably 100 personal friends that I lost that day,” said Eichele.
While many firefighters took their retirements soon after those tragic events, Eichele pushed on for two more years.
“That was always my plan, 30 years, and I decided to stick with it,” he said.
Later that year, the USGA offered Eichele a rare exemption into the Mid-Am tournament field, which he turned down due to the location (California) and the fact that excavation efforts were still underway.
A year later, the offer was renewed, and accepted, with Eichele joining the starting field in the 2002 Mid-Am at the Stanwich Country Club in Connecticut.
“I finished in the middle of the pack, but the Stanwich club members treated us great, I couldn’t be more gracious,” said Eichele.
In 2003 he retired from the force, months later he was living in Pinehurst, North Carolina.
Eichele currently lives on course No. 6 and, as a local, has his share of advice for AGC members heading to the inaugural amateurgolf.com Pinehurst Invitational.
“Learn how to control the spin on your chips,” he said. The former North and South Senior runner-up also said competitors need work on using utility clubs to bang the ball up the steep green embankments that are heavily featured on the course No’s 2 & 4. As for No. 6?
“I actually like the architecture on No. 6 best of all,” noted Eichele, who said that houses on the course (one of them his own) are the only drawback from an otherwise top-quality track.
When asked what the biggest difference from living in the bustling city of NYC to the laid-back Village of Pinehurst, Eichele didn’t take long to come up with this anecdote.
“In the city, if you aren’t on the gas a second after the light turns green someone is honking their horn,” he said. “Out here if you fell asleep at a red light, I think the people behind you would wait for you to wake up before they used their horn.”