Moving is never an easy proposition for a young boy. So, it was with understandable trepidation that Eric Eshleman followed his family from the Port Washington, Wis., home in which he had grown up for the mile-high city of Prescott, Ariz., when his chemical engineer father was transferred there. But Eshleman felt better when he discovered that his new abode abutted a municipal golf course called Antelope Hills.
“I had two older brothers, and we had all taken up golf as a family back in Wisconsin,” he recalls. “But the game really stuck with me in Arizona. I liked how golf challenged you to get better and the ways it taught you honor and humility. I also liked the people side of the game.”
Most of the people Eshleman first got to know in Prescott were retirees who played Antelope Hills incessantly. “They loved the game, and they quickly found out that I loved it, too,” he says. “They’d swing by our house in their golf carts on weekday afternoons when I was back from school or on weekend mornings, like kids seeing if I could come out to play. And then we’d play the course until dark, and after that putt on the practice green by the lights from their cars and carts.”
“There was no junior golf program at Antelope Hills,” says Eshleman of the place that opened with one course in 1956 and added a second in 1992, long after he had left for college. “But I didn’t need one with those guys. Thanks to them, I got really into the game.”
Soon, he was competing in junior tournaments around the state, eventually becoming good enough to capture the state high school championship. After playing in college and earning a business degree at the University of Nebraska, Eshleman then moved to Florida to take a job as an instructor at the Grand Cypress Resort outside Orlando. He has been in the business ever since, and these days is director of golf at the Country Club of Birmingham in Alabama, a 36-hole facility with more than 1,600 members and a junior program that caters to more than 350 boys and girls. Now 51, Eshleman counts former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as one of his students, and one of his very good friends. And he has climbed so high in his line of work that last year, the PGA of America named him its Golf Professional of the Year.
As a teenager, Eshleman allowed himself to dream a bit of playing golf as a tour professional. But he was realistic about his chances, in large part because he had seen some very strong golfers as a junior and appreciated how much better they were. Especially a fellow named Phil Mickelson, and Eshleman says that the future winner of multiple major championships had a lot to do with his heading to Nebraska for college instead of staying home. “For me, it was down to Arizona State and Nebraska,” he says. “But Phil was going to ASU, and given that I could not beat him as a junior, I did not think I had much of a chance of getting the better of him in college.”
“I liked teaching right away. I loved interacting with the golfers and helping them get better. And I enjoyed being at a place where I could learn how to be a better instructor.”
Eshleman played all four years for the Cornhuskers and upon graduation headed south to Florida, where he entered mini-tour events and also began teaching at the Grand Cypress Academy of Golf. “I liked teaching right away,” he says. “I loved interacting with the golfers and helping them get better. And I enjoyed being at a place where I could learn how to be a better instructor.”
After six years at Grand Cypress, Eshleman took a job in 1997 as director of instruction for the golf schools that were part of the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail in Alabama. “I was teaching a lot, both individual private lessons and also as part of three-day golf schools,” he says. Then, in 2002, he became director of golf at the Country Club of Birmingham, which has a pair of Donald Ross golf courses on which some 40,000 rounds a year are played and is regarded as one of the finest clubs in the South. It was there that he made the acquaintance of Dr. Rice.
“She had grown up in Birmingham and came here each Christmas to visit relatives,” explains Eshleman, who oversees a year-round operation that includes seven assistant professionals and an outside staff of 35. “She had expressed an interest to some friends in working with a golf professional, and they recommended me. This was after she had left the government and was working at Stanford (University). We played a round together, and hit it off, and have been working together ever since.”
Eshleman says that Rice was a 22 handicap when she became his student. “She had taken up golf later in life, and while she was very athletic, she nonetheless needed some strong fundamentals,” he says. “When she was Secretary of State, she often played the golf courses at Andrews Air Force base outside of Washington D.C. And she wanted to continue playing, and to get better, when she left that job.”
In addition to visiting Birmingham for Christmas, Dr. Rice typically comes to town in the spring and fall. “We’ll hit balls together for an hour or two, have lunch and then go play,” says Eshleman, who with his wife, Kelli, is raising three boys, the youngest of whom are 15-year-old twins. “She really enjoys being on the golf course and getting her instruction during an actual game.”
She also must enjoy the results, and Eshleman says her handicap has dropped into the low teens.
Clearly, Eshleman has liked the results as well, for what he has been able to do with Dr. Rice is the sort of thing that led him to become a PGA club professional in the first place. Same with the work he has done with his eldest son, Ryan, who is a top-ranked junior and on his way to Auburn University this fall to play golf, and 15-year-old Joe, who not only is a member of his high school team but also an Eagle Scout. (As for Joe’s twin, Heath, his sport is bowling, and he made his high school bowling team as a freshman.)
“Being around people and helping them get better at golf is what I have been able to do my entire professional life,” Eshleman says. “And it is what I have liked doing more than anything else.”
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