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NYC - The Heart of a Champion

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We got a check in the mail in late April, a donation to Harbor House, which operates shelters in the Orlando, Florida area for victims of domestic violence. My wife, Robin, is on the board of directors for Harbor House and together we help to organize the charitys annual golf tournament. The check was also accompanied by a brief letter of gratitude, thanking my wife and me for being a part of the most serendipitous golfing moment of the year 2001.
 
Matt Corrigans 46, a captain in the FDNY, ladder 121 Engine 265. Hes married to Nancy, and they have two sons, Matt, 6 and James, 3. Matts salt of the earth, with dark curly hair and a thick, hearty regional accent that says New York instantly. A Jerry Garcia lover, he gave to his oldest son a middle name of Jerry. Matt played in a band when he was younger. Now he plays golf, and very well I might add.
 
One of his golfing buddies is another fireman, Chief Ken Eichle, a 50 year old veteran of 28 years with the FDNY, stationed on the East side of Manhattan in Battalion 10. Together over the last several years with other friends ' firefighters, police officers ' they frequently played Bethpage Black, site of the upcoming U.S. Open. In fact, Ken will be a marshal on the second hole during the tournament. Theyre members of The Nassau Players Club, a group of mostly low handicap, public golfers who play together and hold tournaments at daily fee golf courses. Over the years, Ken and Matt were partners and opponents, enough times to have developed a playful, jabbing banter with one another as to whos gotten the better of the battles.
 
I mentioned that they were good players, good enough in fact to attempt to qualify for various amateur events staged by the United States Golf Association. On September 11, Ken and Matt were both trying to qualify for the U.S. Mid Amateur Championship, albeit at different courses in the metropolitan New York area, for guys 24 to 55. Ken was entered at Bedford Golf and Tennis Club in Westchester, while Matt was at Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Pines, NJ.
 
Ken had an early tee time and was playing well. He was even par through 14 holes. Then it happened. The bridges to the city were closed. He had nowhere to go. He saw the horror on TV in the locker room of the club. When the towers crumbled, he knew immediately that he had lost many, many comrades.
 
Matt Corrigan never did tee off. He, too, lost many friends and colleagues.
 
About a week later, as America tried to return to some corner or small part of the world it knew, the golf tournament, that U.S. Mid Amateur, re-played its qualifier for its upcoming event. Neither Ken nor Matt, of course, could come back. They were dealing with the grimmest situation possible, burying co-workers, attending memorial services and helping at ground zero.
 
The United States Golf Association oversees 13 national championships, from the U.S. Junior Girls to the U.S. Open to The U.S. Senior Amateur. They decided to extend Ken Eichele a special invitation to bypass the qualifier ' at which he was playing very well, remember ' and complete in next years national mid amateur championship. Ken accepted. The USGA has always been a paragon of egalitarianism in terms of the score you shoot being the ultimate arbiter. Here, though, they felt the circumstances were such that Ken should be given a spot in the field.
 
By early October, Ken and Matt and their friends had returned to Bethpage Black to play golf again, a reminder for them that not all the good in the world was stolen on that terrible day. The trees could still be enjoyed, and so too could a laugh with your pals, or the thrill and wonder of a well-executed golf shot. It was therapeutic.
 
I was there on that October day when Ken and Matt and two buddies teed off in the fog at the spot where Tiger will stand this week. I was at work on an assignment for The Golf Channel called New York Stories, five accounts from victims of the terrorist attack, all of whom were in some way connected to golf.
 
Ken and Matt shared their story. The program, one hour, aired over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday last year. The board at Harbor House, upon hearing their story and of their love for golf, extended an invitation of its own to both Ken and Matt to play in their December 10th charity tournament in Orlando, Florida. Among the pros were John Cook, Lee Janzen, Chris DiMarco, Laura Diaz, Skip Kendall, as well as famed instructor David Leadbetter. Ken and Matt had, like many of their brethren, experienced a traumatic and exhausting several month period and were anxious to get away from New York. They came to Florida.
 
They were paired with tour pro Mike Sposa and me. We had played five holes, beginning on the 15th in a shotgun start, when we arrived at the 166 yard, par three 2nd hole at ChampionsGate, a new Greg Norman design not far from Disney. As is customary at charity golf tournaments, there was a car up for grabs to anyone who makes a hole in one. The car in this case was a 57-thousand-dollar Cadillac Escalade.
 
Matt teed off with a six iron, and quickly said, Oh thats way right.
 
The pro, Sposa, just as fast and lightheartedly snapped, Right? Whaddya mean, you got the Escalade!
 
Two bounces later it disappeared, we screamed and hollered and hugged and woke up the entire city with happiness. The story made USA Today, The Orlando Sentinel and The New York Post. Just as his friend, Ken, had gotten his just reward, so too had Matt.
 
And soon after, we had ours in the form of that letter plus the donation to the charity. It was signed by Matt Corrigan.
 
New Yorks filled with every imaginable kind of person, most assuredly heroic, big-hearted types. Some would say that this week at The U.S. Open New Yorkers will demonstrate to the world that theyre back. Id say they never went anywhere.
 
Editor's Note: Dont Miss A Special Encore Presentation of
New York Storiesof Enduring Spirit
Saturday, June 15 @ 5 PM ET on The Golf Channel