The full story appears in the November 2019 edition of PGA Magazine.
By definition and proclamation, the National PGA Golf Professional of the Year Award is annually bestowed upon a long-tenured PGA Professional who demonstrates many impeccable qualities.
These include unquestionable leadership, strong moral character, a commitment to coaching and growing the game with equal aplomb, and dedication to training and mentoring other PGA Professionals. Plus, being a highly competent player, merchandiser, business manager and tournament director, while also owning an exemplary record of service and governance to the PGA of America at the local, Section and national levels.
Eric Eshleman, the PGA Director of Golf at the Country Club of Birmingham in Alabama, checks all of those boxes — and many more. The 50-year-old Eshleman is the 2019 PGA Golf Professional of the Year, the highest annual honor given to a PGA Professional.
As a 24-year PGA Member and former President of the Alabama-NW Florida PGA Section, Eshleman certainly owns all the credentials and qualifications befitting a PGA Golf Professional of the Year. But more than anything, Eshleman’s a difference-maker; a guy who gets things done.
“I believe being a PGA Professional is one of the most noble professions that exists. We have the opportunity to leave ‘footprints’ in people’s lives on a daily basis,” says Eshleman, who as a coach and mentor has left his indelible imprint on tour professionals such as 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Patton Kizzire, Smylie Kauffman and Paul Dunne, as well as leaders and luminaries such as 66th U.S. Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice.
He also was a coach, confidant, counselor and friend to former PGA Championship and U.S. Open champion Hubert Green and short-game guru Phil Rodgers, learning from the experiences of those two standouts and sharing their expertise with his own students.
Indeed, Eshleman is a difference-maker and a life-changer at the Country Club of Birmingham, a 36-hole facility with 1,650 members where the 2019 PGA Golf Professional of the Year teams with General Manager Jeff Orkus, Superintendent Lee McLemore and an enthusiastic staff to provide the large membership with many sterling golf programs and immaculate course conditions. When Eshleman isn’t teaching a member, he willingly shares his knowledge and expertise with Assistant Professionals at the Country Club of Birmingham or other Section PGA Professionals to help them advance their respective careers.
"My most significant contribution has been training dozens of professionals to be outstanding golf instructors,” says Eshleman, the 2000 and 2004 Alabama-NW Florida Section Teacher of the Year. “I look at golf instruction as being synonymous with relationships. People love to take lessons from, and play golf with, a PGA Professional who can help their game and also be their friend. “There is nothing I enjoy more than teaching other teachers, or helping other PGA Professionals in any way I can.”
Eshleman, a member of the PGA Adjunct Faculty, is passionate when it comes to teaching and educating other PGA Professionals, remembering that without the mentors he had while climbing the PGA of America ladder, he wouldn’t be where he is today.
“I’m a big believer in our golf family trees and paying respect to those PGA Professionals above us,” says Eshleman, a two-time Section PGA Golf Professional of the Year. “PGA Professional Bucky Ayers got Fred Griffin and Buster Inman in the business. All three have been tremendous mentors to me.
“I’m trying to do the same for all the staff professionals and interns who have worked for me.”
The passionate Eshleman has developed a reputation throughout Alabama and the Southeast as a difference-maker by welcoming anyone — luminaries, celebrities or politicians — to the lesson tee. His open-door policy resulted in a visit from one of Birmingham’s most famous figures eight years ago.
In December of 2011, Rice was visiting her hometown of Birmingham during the holidays. She asked some locals: “Who is the best golf pro around here who can help me with my game?” As Rice recalls, the answer was unanimous: “Go and see E (Eshleman) at the Country Club of Birmingham.”
“That started a relationship that is emblematic of what the PGA of America stands for — a caring, skilled professional helping an aspiring golfer — in this case, one relatively new to the sport,” recalls Rice, who served as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush from 2005-09.
“Eric has done so much for my game with his patience and insight. But he has also become a friend because he is just a good human being. We have continued to work together all these years later, much to the benefit of my game and much to my delight to have such a good friend.”
Eshleman has accompanied Rice to numerous special golf outings and appearances nationwide, and has caddied for and played with the 66th Secretary of State. “I’m so lucky to have the relationship that I cherish with Condi. It’s as if we’re lifetime friends,” says Eshleman.”
Eshleman has been a champion of diversity and inclusion throughout his 24-year career as a PGA Member. He worked with Adrian Stills, the only African-American player on the PGA Tour in 1986 and 1987, at Grand Cypress and observed how Stills handled himself in some trying situations.
“Adrian was an incredible player and an even better person,” recounts Eshleman. “People gravitated to him like he was a magnet, and everybody loved him. I saw how Adrian was a minority in rooms and at parties, but it never affected him.
“I wanted others to have that same opportunity, so I hired Josiah Singletary as a summer intern from Methodist University’s PGA Golf Management Program. He was the first African American on the Country Club of Birmingham’s golf staff. He too learned how to hold his own and went on to be a shining star in the Jim McLean golf schools. Josiah said at our junior banquet that I was like a second father to him. We still stay in touch and I was happy to open a door for him.”
Eshleman also saw the need to have women on his golf staff, so he hired now-PGA Professional Rebecca Acre after she completed her degree and playing career on the University of Alabama-Birmingham women’s golf team.
“I don’t know what we would do without Rebecca Acre,” Eshleman says. “She heads up our ladies golf association and teaches all of our younger girls in the junior golf program. She also became a PGA Class A member in 17 months. Because of Rebecca’s success, I am trying to get more young women from college golf teams to think seriously about the golf profession as a career. There are no ceilings to their success.”
Eshleman speaks like a proud father, or a proud PGA colleague, when he talks about another of his hires, Chris Biggins, who hasn’t let cerebral palsy prevent him from performing all functions of a PGA Professional or from qualifying for the United States Paralympic Ski Team.
“One of the best things that has ever happened in my life is getting to know Chris Biggins. He interned for us for three summers in a row, largely because he was receiving incredible medical care at the Cerebral Palsy center in Birmingham,” says Eshleman. “He has now become one of their role models to others with cerebral palsy.”
Eshleman hired Biggins as a full-time staff professional three years ago.
“He is my right-hand man with our junior golf program. Kids, parents and our staff at the Country Club of Birmingham all look up to Chris,” says Eshleman. “He is simply amazing! I can’t beat him in ping pong, hoops or tennis. He’s an amazing athlete.
“I give him the winter months off so he can spend them in Park City, Utah, training and trying to qualify for the U.S. Paralympic Ski Team. He flies down a snow-covered mountain, and while walking a golf course is difficult, I’ve never seen him shoot above 79. Chris is a miraculous person who has had a great impact at our club and in our Section.”
Eshleman notes that the junior programs at the Country Club of Birmingham include more than teaching golf fundamentals.
“We teach our kids to tuck in their shirt tails, the proper way to shake hands, use library voices at the club, and to open their mom’s car door,” he says proudly. “We also currently have five kids heading to play Division I college golf. I’ve always said that dads don’t call each other on Friday night to say grab your helmet and let’s go tackle each other a few times tomorrow morning. They call and make their foursomes for golf.
“Most of the kids who grow up in our junior program will be single-digit handicaps, act properly, and love the game for all their lives. PGA Jr. League, Drive, Chip & Putt, and an overall commitment at all levels have helped reopen the floodgates to junior golf. The impact our junior program has made on lives will long outlast my career.”
How has junior golf grown at Country Club of Birmingham under the direction of Eshleman?
When he was hired in 2001, the club had 50 juniors compete for the club championship. In 2016, 185 juniors teed it up in the Junior Club Championship, followed by 197 in 2017 and more than 200 in 2018. Together with Assistant Professionals Biggins and James Bruns, Eshleman leads a three-league, 21-team PGA Jr. League program in Birmingham. Eshleman also serves as a frequent starter at Drive, Chip & Putt competitions and as a volunteer at junior and collegiate tournaments within the Alabama- NW Florida Section. To put a cherry on top, the Country Club of Birmingham also hosted two USGA Championships in the last five years – the 2013 USGA Mid-Amateur and the 2016 USGA Team Championship.
That is a small portion of the portfolio of a difference-maker and a life changer.
“We now have more than 350 kids in our junior golf programs,” says Eshleman. “As has become typical at our club, we had 141 days in the past year with a junior event on our golf calendar. I was responsible for junior golf in my first job at Grand Cypress. Now, almost 27 years later, I’m still in charge of junior golf. I teach after-school clinics, summer camps, and travel with our team to junior league matches. Each year, we produce an end-of- the-year video that is played at our junior club championship banquet.”
Eshleman tries to be a difference-maker in the life of every golfer he teaches. But how can he make a lasting impression? He has a proven formula.
“I still believe the ultimate way you can have an impact on golfers is to give them a lesson, fit them to a new set of clubs, or play 18 holes with them,” insists Eshleman. “I’m unapologetic about how much time I spend each day giving lessons and being outside with golfers.”
It may or may not surprise you to learn that Eric Eshleman’s “dream foursome” is not Condoleezza Rice, Graeme McDowell, Hubert Green and Phil Rodgers, which would certainly be a Hall of Fame grouping. No, his “dream team” would be his family foursome — wife Kelli and sons Ryan, Heath and Joe.
“Despite the long hours and long days we all spend as PGA Professionals, I’m a big believer in family first,” says Eshleman, who counts Kelli’s first hole-in-one while playing in the Mountaintop Husband-Wife member guest event with their friends, the Browns, last year as a priceless memory.
“Kelli hit a beautiful 9-iron from 125 yards that took one hop and rolled dead-center into the cup. She started crying and we all went nuts. It’s one of the most fun memories I’ve ever had on a golf course. We’re still talking about the total joy we witnessed that day. I’ve had eight aces over the years, but none brought me as much happiness as Kelli’s.”
There promises to be more Eshleman family memories on the near horizon. Son Ryan eats, sleeps and breathes golf, according to Eshleman. He is the No. 1-ranked player in Alabama in his class and has already committed to a golf scholarship at Auburn University. Heath and Joe, the Eshleman’s 15-year-old twins, also love the game. Joe in the process of earning his Eagle Scout certification and Heath made the Vestavia Hills High School bowling team (defending state champions) as a freshman.
In addition to his family, there is nothing more gratifying for Eshleman than to see one of his current or former students succeed in golf and life.
“Some of my top accomplishments in my career are the countless golfers I’ve been able to help,” notes Eshleman. “My students have won tournaments around the world and on all tours.”
In recapping and reviewing Eric Eshleman’s mountain of accomplishments during nearly a quarter century as a PGA Professional, it is evident that the 2019 PGA Golf Professional of the Year has impacted hundreds — maybe thousands — of lives. Indeed, the PGA Director of Golf at the Country Club of Birmingham has worn many hats and served in numerous prominent positions. Several titles could be used to describe his exemplary career in golf and in life. But let’s just call him a dedicated difference-maker.