Whether Kenneth Li is playing a 18-hole tournament, or just a nine-hole dual meet, it’s a good bet his father Wei Li will be close by.
Wei Li is a regular spectator whenever Hinsdale Central takes the course. Those matches now take on added importance for the defending Class 3A state champions, as the Devils were set to begin another postseason this week.
Hinsdale Central was scheduled to play in the 3A York Regional Tuesday at Maple Meadows in Wood Dale, attempting to become the fifth straight team to win consecutive state championships in the large-school class. The Naperville Central Sectional at Springbrook is Monday.
Proving he’s in tournament form, Kenneth Li, a Hinsdale Central sophomore from Westmont, shot an even-par 72 to finish second at the West Suburban Silver meet Oct. 1 at Prairie Bluffs Golf Club in Crest Hill.
As usual, Wei Li walked the course with Kenneth’s group. But he doesn’t want to be characterized as a stage door parent, living his dream through his child.
Wei Li has never swung a club and doesn’t worry about pushing his son to work on his swing or practice on the driving range.
Wei Li keeps his son’s scores, but provides no advice before or after a meet. One of his only jobs is helping bring Kenneth Li’s clubs to a meet and then stashing them away afterward. Kenneth Li sustained golf-related back pain last year and now uses a bulky pull cart that is difficult to transport in the team bus to and from school.
“I’m just cooking to make sure he eats,” said Wei Li, a self-proclaimed proud parent.
Kenneth Li is the only child of Wei Li and Sherry Wong, who married in China and came to the United States 20 years ago to earn their master’s degrees at Loyola University. Wei Li is a consultant and Sherry Wong works in finance.
As Wei Lei tells it, his son’s interest in golf began when he was 2 1/2 years old. While his parents worked, Kenneth Li’s baby sitter noticed he remained quiet only while watching the Golf Channel on TV.
“Golf — I never say this word (around Kenneth),” Wei Li insisted. “We let him watch one hour. He didn’t move. He just watched the Golf Channel.”
“I liked it when I was watching it on TV as a little kid,” Kenneth recalled. “I just wanted to play when I grew up.”
Wei Li keeps completely hands-off when it comes to golf advice. He leaves that up to Carl Rabito, the teaching pro at the Bolingbrook Golf Club who has been working with Kenneth since he was 9.
“In my opinion, Wei and Kenneth do everything right. (Kenneth) trains constantly, but each of them has roles that are very different. Kenneth is a self-motivator. His father just drives him to practice. He does not have to force him to study.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and I’ve worked with a ton of Tour players. As far as junior players, you see a common interest (in golf), but for the dad it is more fun than for the kid. This is not that situation here.”
Rabito spends a week each month during the summer teaching at Bolingbrook. One of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Golf Teachers, Rabito also runs academies in New Orleans and Aspen, Colo.
Kenneth Li videotapes his swing and emails the file to Rabito, who will make corrections.
“We are really close,” Kenneth Li said. “He helps me out. I call him on the phone when I need help with my swing.”
Rabito has become Kenneth Li’s “golf dad” with nearly daily phone conversations about the game during the season. Rabito, 50, said many of his calls with Kenneth are about politics and not all about golf.
“Ninety percent of it is about life,” Rabito said.
Last year, Li was the low freshman at the state meet, carding a 76 for 14th at the rain-shortened tournament. He was the No. 2 scorer for the state champs behind Brian Dolehide (74), who tied for fifth.
When Wei Li left China, there was only one golf course in his hometown near Shanghai. While that has changed with the sport’s booming popularity, Wei Li is grateful for the opportunity his son has in the United States.
“I like it (here). In this country, every kid has a chance,” Wei Li said. “For me, I never golfed (as a kid). I’ve never been golfing.”