With the relentless repetition of a Gatling gun, the boys from China fired one ball after another.
Straight and far. Straight and far. Straight and far.
The pounding would continue endlessly, it appeared, unless the boys’ instructor, Scott Bettger, called a cease-fire. After observing his four pupils, the oldest members of the China Junior Team, Bettger had two words to describe them.
“Range monsters,” he said.
Bettger worried the kids’ insatiable appetite to hit nothing but full-swing shots would dull their imagination. And while their mechanical games looked impressive on the range, it could prove their undoing in real competition, he feared.
“From 150 yards out, every one of these guys would hit an 8-iron every time,” Bettger said. “I want to give them a chance to experiment, to freewheel. Otherwise you lose out on hitting shots and really playing golf.”
For Bettger’s students, who ranged in age from 15 to 17, that meant a curriculum heavy on creativity. Among the varied exercises he prescribed: hitting bunker shots with anything but a sand wedge, putting with eyes closed, chipping to identical distances using three different clubs and playing on course with five clubs (3-, 5-, 7-, 9-iron and a putter).
The drills, clearly foreign to the Chinese players, often were met with puzzled looks. But fully aware that such learning experiences were unavailable back home, the students embraced their lessons – even when they were stretched outside their comfort zones.
“Again? Oh my God. Too difficult,” said Ye Jianwei, whining whimsically, as Bettger made him repeat the chipping drill – this time with a 6-iron. Landing golf balls in four locations on the green with different clubs proved tricky for the 15-year-old, who goes by the name Kevin.
His humorous protests aside, Kevin made clear the ambitions that were hatched when he first swung a golf club at a driving range seven years ago and fueled when his father “won an auction” enabling Kevin to play in a three-hole exhibition with his idol, Ernie Els.
“I want to be a world-class player,” he said. “And I don’t like green (jackets) too much, but I want to win the Masters.”
It was evident that much work needs to be done before such dreams come true. Even Kevin, whom Bettger described as a 3-handicapper and the most polished ball striker in his group, struggled to fade approach shots on cue. But an undeterred Kevin focused on his strengths instead.
“My draw is really nice,” he said.
Each of the older boys seemed to take pride in being a pioneer. And it would surprise no one if 16-year-old Li Hongle, who uses the name Leo, became an ambassador for the game. Diplomatic and courteous, Leo would unfailingly tip his cap, smile and say “Thank you” each time he received a swing tip.
Unlike many of his peers who were introduced to the game through family and friends, Leo was “volunteered” four years ago to play golf for his school.
“I don’t know why they picked me,” Leo said through an interpreter. “I really didn’t have a choice, but I didn’t mind. I like trying new things.”
At the time, Leo’s knowledge about the game was limited, essentially, to two facts: He knew there were 18 holes in a round, and he could name three PGA Tour players – Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els.
But a love for golf blossomed, and it has given him memorable experiences, including competing in a four-nation tournament last year with players from Japan, Korea and Canada.
Leo hopes to play professionally, too, but the 10-handicapper has a back-up plan ready.
“I want to teach golf. Be a coach,” he said.
Like Bettger, who applauded each of his students’ shot-making experiments regardless of their outcomes. More important, he urged to them, was understanding clubface awareness at impact.
“If you know that, you can hit any shot,” he said.
That lesson was put to the test when Bettger allowed his students use of only five clubs to play nearby Sara Bay Country Club, a Donald Ross design in Sarasota, Fla.
And they improvised well. From 193 yards, 17-year-old Xie Zhi (Mac) choked down on a 3-iron and drew a shot around trees, landing his ball 20 feet from the pin. Student and teacher both beamed when Daniel – 17-year-old Quan Da – flopped a 9-iron over a greenside bunker from 70 yards.
When it came time to leave, these range monsters headed back to China with more than a little creativity in their bags.