St. Mary's Ryken golf coach Chip Gateau said he was amazed by how quickly Rich Bamber developed a natural touch with his right-handed putter on the greens, just a few months after he picked up the sport before his freshman year with the Knights.

Gateau was even more amazed by the fact that Bamber does everything else on -- and off -- the golf course left-handed.

"I'm not really sure what my putting right-handed is attributed to," said Bamber, an All-Extra selection who will enter fall practice at Ryken as the team's returning No. 1 seed. "Maybe it's because of having better vision on that side or something, [but] I just picked up a right-handed putter and it felt normal. I just felt comfortable on that side right away."

Bamber, now a rising junior, has played in about 10 summer tournaments over the past two months. He has won four of those, and Wednesday finished tied for third place in his most recent match at the Maxfli PGA Junior Championship at the Reston National Golf Club with a 4-over-par 75.

"Isn't that just something?" Gateau said of Bamber's ambidexterity. "I don't know how he got putting right-handed when he's a lefty, but it definitely works for him. ... When something works, you never consider changing it.

There's enough problems out there just trying to learn to handle the weather, the makeup of the course and the different clubs."

By any standard, Bamber -- who is also a member of the Knights' varsity baseball team -- has been a quick study. In the 2 years since golf became part of Bamber's daily routine, he has continually improved, last year focusing on his distance off the tee.

"A lot of times younger golfers, as they get stronger and start wanting to hit the ball farther, they get into trouble and start hitting off the fairways," said Gateau, whose team went 25-0 last fall in Southern Maryland Athletic Conference play. "All they want to do is swing harder, and they can't control that extra power. But Richie was able to add distance last year, improving his average from about 200 to 250 yards, and was also able to maintain his good form and straight shots."

All of that comes, Bamber said, from hours of practice, most of which are garnered alone on the course during the summer months. With school out, young golfers have ample time to hit the course and play 18 holes of golf, which generally takes three to four hours. High school practice, though held nearly every day, rarely simulates a real match because of limited daylight hours after class. Gateau said he usually lets the majority of his 10-person team fit in nine holes of golf while he practices one-on-one with one or two players on the greens.

That system, apparently, works very well. The Knights, who return nine of the 10 members from last year's championship team, should dominate the conference again this fall when play resumes Sept. 7. Back are standouts Bamber, senior Howie Grube-O'Brien, junior Roger Welch and junior Jaime Masciantonio, the lone girl on last year's team. Eddie Bowie, a 1998 first-team all-SMAC pick, will be the team's lone loss. Bowie, a rising junior who bounced between the No. 2 and No. 4 seed for the Knights last year, is transferring to DeMatha High.

"I gave up baseball for golf last year, and want to concentrate on that," said Bowie, who shot an 82 at the Maxfli tournament Wednesday. "I think Coach Gateau was upset when I told him I had decided to transfer, but I feel like DeMatha offers a stronger athletic program."

Gateau said he does hate to see Bowie and his family leave the Ryken community, but he said there is still much to look forward to in the coming fall.

"Practice starts Aug. 16 for us," said Gateau, whose team practices at Wicomico Shores Golf Course. "And I'm even looking forward to that already. We've got a great group of kids coming back, and a wealth of talent."

Tops on that list, of course, is Bamber, who carried a conference-low 39 average last fall. Already this summer he has picked up solo wins in the 16-18-year-old division of three Southern Maryland Optimist Club Tournaments -- one each at Breton Bay, Wicomico Shores and Twin Shields Golf Courses. Bamber also successfully defended his Prince George's County Championship this year.

"The more I play, the more I love this game," said Bamber, who clearly has much less enthusiasm for the pesky insects who swarm above the grass, nipping at his legs and ankles. "And the more this," Bamber said, laughing as he held up a can of Unscented Off bug spray, "becomes essential."