The Best Story of 2001

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The two best things to happen in golf in 2001? New York firefighter Ken Eichele gaining a special exemption to the 2002 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship; and his friend, New York Fire Captain Matt Corrigan, making a hole in one to win a two-year lease on a Cadillac Escalade.
 
If you buy the notion that, as Johnny Miller told me, golf seems inconsequential in light of what happened on September 11; if the thought of thousands of people randomly and wantonly being killed makes it impossible to truly celebrate the noteworthy achievements of a game; then Ken Eichele and Matt Corrigan, representing all the service personnel who didn't question, didn't falter, didn't hesitate, didn't pontificate, didn't relent - Ken Eichele and Matt Corrigan are the two best things to happen to golf this year.
 
Corrigan is 45, married and the father of two young children. A captain in Ladder 121, he lives and works in Rockaway Beach, 10 blocks from where the Dominican-bound plane crashed.
 
Matt's close golfing buddy is Ken, who was featured in a Golf Channel special filmed in the New York area one month after the attacks. Ken is a fire chief stationed at 85th between Lexington and Third, a veteran of 28 years. On September 11th, he was qualifying for the Mid-Am at Bedford in Westchester County, even par through 14 holes, when he learned of the full extent of the attacks.
 
With all the bridges into the city closed, Eichele and several other firefighters who were attempting to qualify could only watch on television in the locker room. 'I turned to my friend,' Eichele remembers somberly, 'and said, 'We just lost 200 men.''
Nine men from Eichele's Engine Company died. Ken personally knew over 100 firefighters who perished. The USGA cancelled the qualifier, replayed it a week later without Ken Eichele, and then granted him a special exemption to next year's Mid-Am at Stamwich in Connecticut. 'I feel like I'll be representing all the guys,' says Eichele.
 
Matt Corrigan is a regular alongside Ken in the Nassau Players Club, a group of mostly single-digit handicappers, 100 strong, who play various public courses on Long Island. They happen to call Bethpage Black, home to next year's U.S. Open, one of their regular stops.
 
As part of our story on Ken Eichele, we arranged to tape Ken and Matt and two of their buddies playing golf on a Sunday morning at Bethpage Black. Corrigan's a salt-of-the-earth character with black hair, an easy smile and a thick New York accent. His choice in clubs is a merrily arranged mixed bag of knockoffs and nicked-up no-names that've hit hundreds of Whiffle balls off firehouse floors. On the day we videotaped at Bethpage, Matt, playing the middle tees, shot 71 on the Black Course.
 
On September 11, Matt was also qualifying for the U.S. Mid-Amateur, only at another site. The round was cancelled. Obviously like his friend, Ken, he couldn't return for the rescheduled qualifier, not while working at Ground Zero and burying so many friends and brother firefighters.
 
Unlike Ken, though, Matt hadn't played enough holes to sort of raise the eyebrows of the USGA the way Ken did with his even par, 14-hole effort. Humble and as comfortable in his own skin as any man you'll meet, Matt says, 'Kenny deserves the exemption for all he's been through.' Asked if he plans on qualifying for the same event, Matt, a scratch player, doesn't hesitate. 'Oh yeah, we're gonna try. That would be poetic justice if he could be there with Ken.'Yes, I'll be immersed in the Ryder Cup and the steady drumbeat of important professional events next year, but rest assured, I'll have a close eye and a piece of my heart in the direction of the U.S. Mid-Amateur in 2002.
 
Anyway, the story doesn't end there, my friends. No, not even close. See, we stayed in touch with Ken and Matt, and invited the pair to Florida for a charity golf tournament Dec. 10 to benefit victims of domestic violence. Lee Janzen, John Cook, Chris DiMarco, Skip Kendall, Laura Diaz and Emilee Klein were among the many pros who, along with their wives, participated in the Harbor House Invitational at Greg Norman's interesting new 36-hole project called ChampionsGate. David Leadbetter, whose eye-popping, state-of-the-art academy is based there, gave a clinic with Brad Bryant before the shotgun scramble.
 
Ken and Matt were paired with tour pro Mike Sposa and me. Sposa's a very personable, fun-loving guy who swings and putts beautifully. We teed off on 15 and were going along smoothly, though not spectacularly, through five holes, maybe 3-under-par. At the second, a 166-yard par-3 from the middle tees, there sat a huge, shining new black Cadillac Escalade SUV worth $57,000 to anybody who made a hole in one. After Mike put his on from maybe 200 yards off the back tees, Matt let fly with a 6-iron and said immediately something to the effect of, 'Oh, that's right.' To which Sposa retorted, 'Right? Whattya mean? You got the Escalade!'
 
Sposa turned out to be more than a great guy. He turned out to be a prophet. After a couple bounces and a little roll, the ball disappeared. Hole in one. We went nuts. Absolutely nuts. Three days later, Matt was doing phone interviews with the New York Post, USA Today and the Orlando Sentinel. It made all the papers.
 
Ken Eichele has gotten his exemption. Matt Corrigan got the ride of a lifetime. And three months after the saddest day in most of our lifetimes, we got to hug and have some laughs. A year in which humanity suffered greatly ended on a blessedly human note.