Three years ago, Richie Bamber, on a whim, took up golf for the first time. It didn't take him long to figure out the sport in a way that some players never have.

After only three months, Bamber felt confident enough in his skills to try out for the golf team at St. Mary's Ryken High School. He not only made the team, but also earned the No. 2 spot, despite the fact that he was only a freshman.

Now, as he begins his junior year, Ryken Coach Chip Gateau thinks Bamber is the best high school golfer in the Southern Maryland Athletic Conference. He's one of three returning members from last year's All-Extra first team. In Wednesday's season opener, Bamber shot an even-par 36 over nine holes at Wicomico to beat Chopticon's C.J. Czosek--another returning All-Extra pick--by two strokes in St. Mary's Ryken's 18-stroke win.

"He probably has one of the softest touches around the green that I've seen in a long time," Gateau said. "It just came really naturally."

Bamber's skills have developed to the point that he's seriously considering giving up baseball, even though he was a starter on Ryken's varsity as a sophomore.

"I don't really take baseball as seriously anymore," Bamber said. "I want to take golf seriously."

Bamber, a left-hander, is largely a self-taught player who has never taken a lesson from a professional. He credits his father, Michael, who had an 8 handicap before quitting golf when Richie was born. Michael took Richie to the driving range, gave him some pointers, then sent him out on a golf course after a few sessions.

Bamber said he was influenced by his father and the increased popularity of golf when he decided to take up the sport.

Golf "was coming along at the time, a lot of people were getting into it," he said. "I knew my dad had played it, so I figured, 'Why not try?' "

Bamber hit the ground running, playing four or five times a week. He quickly set a goal: making the St. Mary's Ryken golf team.

"My dad told me the guys that were going to try out for the team had been playing since they were 6 or something, so for me to catch up I'd have to play a lot," he said.

Right away, Bamber's chipping and short game became his best assets. Soon after, his putting improved.

"My strength is 50 yards and in, and putting real well," Bamber said. "The only thing right now is I'd like to be longer off the tee, then I'll be all right."

Although he's left-handed, Bamber putts from the right side. It's a sight that often draws questions when he reaches the green.

"I should sit down one night and think of something to answer that question," Bamber said. "It's just a comfort thing. A lot of the game is what you're comfortable with. And when you pick up the game, you do what's comfortable."

Bamber is in the top 15 in his class with a 4.3 grade-point average. Juggling academics and golf isn't a problem--it's a necessity, he said.

"My parents are real strict with grades," he said. "If my grades slid, they would take things away from me, like golf. I've got to manage my time, basically."

He said he has.

"I'm still alive," he said with a laugh. "It hasn't stressed me out completely. No, I'm not missing out on anything."

SMAC Golf Preview: Teams at a Glance

School

Coach

1998 Records

Returning Starters

Calvert

Jim Chaney

6-16, 6-16

4

Chopticon

Jim Younkins

7-15, 7-15

4

Great Mills

Steve Wolf

7-13, 7-13

4

Lackey

Terry Sinclair

N/A

N/A

La Plata

Frazier Coleman

14-8, 14-8

2

Leonardtown

Ben Weiland

32-3, 20-2

3

McDonough

John Thime

N/A

N/A

Northern

Jim Hall

14-10, 9-3

2

Patuxent

Karl Brungot

16-6-1, 15-6-1

4

St. Mary's Ryken

Chip Gateau

26-0, 22-0

5

Thomas Stone

Donnie Mayer

17-9, 17-9

5

Westlake

Scott Sisolak

5-6, 5-6

N/A