For more than a month, Ken Eichele didn't have the time, the energy or the inclination to play golf.
There simply was no room for a game in his life.
Eichele, chief of Battalion 10 of the Fire Department of New York, was attempting to qualify for the U.S. Mid-Amateur Sept. 11 when the city came under attack. By the time he reached Ground Zero, it was 11 p.m.
"It was much worse than anybody could imagine in their worst nightmares, beyond anything I had seen on TV," Eichele said. "It was just unbelievable devastation, even in the buildings around the towers."
Eichele did what all city firefighters did; he began working endless hours to try to find survivors. Finally, a woman was pulled out at 2 p.m. the next day.
"Not finding people alive was the worst part of the ordeal," Eichele said. "Finding the woman really lifted everyone's spirits, but no one was found after that."
Nine of the 12 men working at Eichele's station that day died, including two carrying a person down in a wheelchair when one of the twin towers collapsed.
Eichele cried at the many funerals he attended. He wept alone in his car when he saw in his mind the faces of some of those who lost their lives, men he had known for as long as 30 years.
It took awhile, but Eichele also came to the realization that if he didn't play golf again, he'd be giving in to the terrorists.
"Nobody loves the game more than me, but you have to keep it in perspective after what happened," Eichele said. "There's some pressure in golf, but I consider pressure being in a super-heated room in thick smoke and having a split second to decide which way to dive to save your life. That's what firefighters go through nearly every day.
"My favorite saying is what a retired fire chief always said, `Live while you're alive.' I don't ever take anything for granted now. I still try to win every time I play and hope to play a round the day I die. But the bottom line is golf is still just a game."
Eichele was in the first group to tee off Sept. 11 and finished his round before heading to the disaster site, 20 miles away. Many others, however, were still on the course when the qualifier was postponed until Sept. 17. Eichele obviously didn't play that day, but he received an unprecedented offer from U.S. Golf Association executive director David Fay.
The USGA executive committee felt Eichele would have qualified if not for the circumstances and should be given a special exemption. Fay gave Eichele the option of playing in the U.S. Mid-Amateur in Fresno, Calif., two weeks later or the 2002 championship at The Stanwich Club and Round Hill Club in Greenwich. Obviously, 2002 was the only choice he could make. So that's where he'll be when the tournament starts Sept. 21.
"The exemption isn't just for me. It's for all the firefighters who might have been there," said Eichele, 51, a scratch player in the Nassau Players Club at Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y., site of the U.S. Open last June.
His Own Life Saved
Sept. 11 began misty and foggy at the Bedford Golf and Tennis Club in suburban New York, and Eichele wasn't hitting the ball with his usual crispness. Still, after starting at No.10, he was even par for the first eight holes of the sectional qualifier. And the murky conditions had given way to sunshine.
As he walked onto the 18th green, it was just after 9 a.m. Dave Segot, a friend and fellow FDNY member, approached Eichele and told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Eichele gave Segot a quizzical look but wasn't overly concerned. The first reports had a Piper Cub, a small private plane, hitting the tower.
Five holes later, Eichele learned of the magnitude of what had happened and realized playing golf on a day off saved his life. Another friend, Pat Reilly, who had seen the explosions at the towers as he drove to the course, provided the grim details.
Two jetliners had crashed into the World Trade Center, and the towers were gone. Eichele, who had been part of the WTC rescue effort after a bombing in 1993, wanted to leave immediately but was told the bridges into the city were closed, so he completed the round - in a daze.