Gripped by a longtime love affair with golf, Henry Victorino hastens to spread the flames.
SPRING HILL - At Blue Tees International, a picturesque little golf range on County Line Road, owner Henry Victorino has not raised the price of a bucket of balls in 17 years.
Property taxes and other expenses have gone up, but golfers can still hit a tin of 35 balls for $2 or knock themselves silly with a 5-gallon bucket for $12. With 400 balls in one of the giant buckets, that amounts to 3 cents a swing.
Like any sportsman - decades ago he played on the South American pro circuit - Victorino doesn't want a good streak to end.
"I just don't want to break the record," he said.
But for a guy who loves the game of golf with an almost religious zeal, holding the line on prices is something more. To Victorino, it sounds almost akin to charging admission to church.
"I want people to have the opportunity to come over and practice without going broke," he said. "I had a lot of good life with golf, and I want other people to enjoy it. It is a mission."
Edward Lorentzen, 21, of Spring Hill, came by Victorino's range last week for the first time and immediately noticed the rock-bottom prices.
"You can't beat them with a stick," he said.
Literally, Victorino is a man who is home on the range. The tee boxes are a short chip shot from the front door of his house. Customers park in his driveway. His golf shack is awash in thousands of bucketed golf balls and clubs in mid repair. He opens for business 365 days a year, even seeing people come by on Christmas Day to try out their new clubs.
"This is my whole world. It is the best I could ever hope for," he said. "It's just a blessing to be here."
Victorino, 69, was born in Italy and raised in South America. When he was 7 and his family lived in Colombia, someone built a golf course next door to his family's home. He had no idea what golf was. But he liked the looks of the people with the pretty clothes who were playing it. So he picked up the game.
Despite a couple of victories, Victorino said, his career on the South American tour never amounted to much. He came to the United States at age 27 and had much better success selling real estate in New York. Enough that he was able to retire at 52 and buy 20 acres along County Line Road, just south of the Hernando-Pasco border, where his driving range now sits.
A widower, Victorino lives alone with a curly haired poodle named Don Quixote de la Mancha III, a pretentious name for a dog that might stand a foot tall at the shoulder.
His brother Al, a pro himself, minds the store on the rare occasions when Victorino is out. But in many ways, Victorino identifies with Kevin Costner's character in Tin Cup - a golf pro who runs a driving range and whose life is enveloped by the game.
"It's glorious. It's unbelievable. I could not have designed and hoped for any better life than this," Victorino said.
Although Victorino tends to share golf tips with anybody who asks, he has students who pay $20 an hour for the privilege of hearing his wisdom. And they swear by him.
Norm Korfist, a 60-year-old Wellington resident, was having trouble getting the ball out of sand traps until he tapped Victorino for help. Victorino made one small adjustment in Korfist's approach, and Korfist immediately began popping balls out of the sand.
Diane Duron, a 63-year-old Timber Pines resident, just started playing golf after she retired from the restaurant business a few months ago.
"It was an experience in frustration," Duron said of her golf game.
Then a friend recommended her to Victorino. Unlike some of her previous coaches, they clicked immediately.
"It's just his easygoing demeanor," she said. "You don't feel like a fool. He just makes you feel at home."
Duron said Victorino taught her the basics on the range and then accompanied her on her first outing on a real golf course. Happily, she survived.
"He didn't yell at me," she said. "He was very kind and patient."
Victorino says the most common problem he sees in golfers is that right-handed people have a hard time letting their left arm do most of the work when they swing a club.
His students range in age from teens to those in their 90s.
"One man was so old I had to grab him after he swung so he wouldn't fall over," Victorino said.
Part of the game's beauty, as Victorino sees it, is that people can play it at all stages of life, even if they were never an athlete during their youth.
The range gets its name because the blue tees - on most golf courses - are those from which the good players hit their tee shots. The international part - and Victorino flies the flags of at least nine nations on the grounds - is his bid to reach out to people of all nationalities.
In fact, Victorino suggests that international relations would improve if everyone took time to play the game.
"It would be a better world," he said, "if everybody was a golfer and enjoyed it as much as I do."
- Robert King can be reached at 352 848-1432. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.orgIf you go
Blue Tees International is at 18240 County Line Road, Spring Hill. It's about 2 miles east of Mariner Boulevard and 3 miles west of U.S. 41. Hours are 7 a.m. until dark daily. For information, call (352) 796-3197.