Belgium’s Echikson Doesn’t Come Into First Mid-Am With Blind Faith
September 25, 2018 | Charlotte, N.C.
By Stuart Hall
Blind trust is a tricky thing as the results tend to lean to one extreme or another – good or bad.
When Sam Echikson, 25, of Belgium, was applying to attend college in the United States, he did so sight unseen. There was Bowdoin College, in Maine; Emory University, in Atlanta; and Davidson College, located about 30 minutes north of Charlotte Country Club, site of this week’s U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship.
Davidson was the front-runner for the unlikeliest of secondary education reasons.
“It struck the sweet spot between academics and golf,” said Echikson. “I applied on a whim and coach [Tim] Straub took me on. He hadn’t really seen me, but needed one extra guy. It just sort of worked out. But I never visited and had never been to Charlotte.”
Straub, who won the 1983 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, had been a member of Wake Forest University’s 1986 NCAA National Championship team as well as the squad that finished second the following year.
Echikson’s collegiate experience in Charlotte was positive to the point that after a brief stint playing professionally in Europe, he returned to the Queen City to continue a career as a software developer. He currently is a full-stack software engineer for CapTech Ventures.
This week, however, he is attempting to design a game plan for winning the 38th U.S. Mid-Amateur in his first attempt. After shooting 2-over 144 in stroke play to earn the 33rd seed, he defeated Ian Bangor, of Moon Township, Pa., 3 and 2 in the Round of 64. Echikson plays top-seeded Stephen Behr, of Florence, S.C., in Tuesday’s Round of 32 at 7:45 a.m. EDT.
“To be honest I was not sure what to expect this week,” said Echikson, whose game had been somewhat sidelined by a herniated disc. After a six-month stretch in which he could not play golf, Echikson underwent surgery to alleviate the issue between his L5 and S4 nerves.
The surgery required that Echikson be bedridden for two weeks followed by two more months of rehabilitation and recovery. Not until early July did Echikson resume playing. On Aug. 24, Echikson shot 66 for medalist honors in a U.S. Mid-Amateur qualifier at Monroe (N.C.) Country Club.
“I feel like I can compete here now that I have seen the other players,” said Echikson.
As a collegiate golfer, Echikson enjoyed a fair amount of on-course success. He posted nine top-10 finishes, including a win in the 2013 Davidson College Invitational that helped him earned All-Southern Conference honors.
He graduated in 2014 and helped Belgium to 10th- and 13th-place finishes, respectively, in the European Amateur and World Amateur Team championships. One of his Belgian teammates was Thomas Detry, a friend from their days playing junior golf.
Echikson also played against Thomas Pieters as a junior. Detry and Pieters played collegiately at the University of Illinois and are now European Tour members. Currently, Detry is ranked 173rd in the Official World Golf Ranking; Pieters, who has won three times on tour and was a member of the 2016 European Ryder Cup Team, is ranked 67th.
Echikson had similar aspirations. He received exemptions on the European Challenge Tour through the Royal Belgian Golf Federation, but missed cuts mounted and he then resorted to European mini-tours. After a year, he called it quits.
“I gave it a try and it was a great experience,” he said. “But I didn’t feel quite good enough and I also didn’t like the singularity of the game. At that level, golf is all you do and that became a little bit boring.”
Echikson’s mother, Anu Ristola, is from Finland and his father, William, is an American expat journalist who authored the book “Shooting for Tiger: How Golf’s New Generation is Transforming a Country Club Sport,” which examines the junior golf circuit. As a result, Echikson is tri-lingual and owns Belgium, Finland and U.S. citizenship.
Having done some web development while playing in Europe, Echikson eventually returned to Charlotte to begin his professional career in earnest and became a reinstated amateur.
Given the short amount of time since Echikson has returned to playing competitively since his surgery, he’s not quite sure the state of his game, though the results this week have displayed a positive uptick.
“I have been emailing video of my swing the past two weeks to my coach in Belgium who I trust with my golf life beyond all reasonable doubt, so I know what to do to get it in good shape, but it’s not fantastic shape,” he said. “But I know what to do to get it right.”
So far this week, the trust he’s shown in his game has turned out for the good.
Stuart Hall is a North Carolina-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA digital channels.