2006: By Rex Hoggard Bradenton, Fla. Of the 22 juniors who schlepped halfway around the world and arrived at the sprawling IMG Academies bubble-headed, yet

It was at his own peril that Zhi Shang puttered around behind the IMG Academies driving range on Feb. 15.

As the others in his group of 14- to 16-year-old boys hit balls, Zhi – who goes by the American name Ken – was scrutinizing identical putters, dangling them from the top of the grips at arms’ length.

Instructor Andrew Oliphant, mentor to Ken and three other Chinese juniors during their stay got the ball rolling.

“New putter?” he inquired. The rest of the group, 14-year-olds Ye Jianfeng (Benny), Fu Zhongyang (Sam) and Tan Tian (Simon), appeared to be preoccupied with practice, methodically swinging away.

“This mine, this someone else’s,” Ken explained, making the mistake of not moving out of earshot of his pals.

Immediately, Benny felt obliged to elaborate.

“His girlfriend!” he yelled, sending everyone into raucous laughter. From Benny, as Oliphant and everyone else at the Academy had known since Day 1, jokes and laughs come as often as birdies and bravado.

“Other than Mu Hu, he’s probably the best junior I would say in China,” said Malcolm Joseph, who taught Benny for 21⁄2 years during Joseph’s tenure at David Leadbetter Academy at Mission Hills Golf Club in Shenzhen, China. Benny impressed all, shooting 3 under on his own ball in a nine-hole match while partnered with Golfweek’s second-rankedjunior, Peter Uihlein.

“I think his cocky nature carries that forward as well,” said Oliphant. “He’s very, very confident in what he does.”

Sam is much different than Benny, and not just because Sam is 6-foot-1, 220 pounds (Oliphant nicknamed him “King Kong”) and Benny is 5-foot-5, 120 pounds. Sam is far less gregarious.

During a 25-minute video swing-analysis session with Oliphant, Sam was glued to the computer screen, saying only about 40 words, 38 of them in Chinese (the two English words were “yup” and “yup”).

Yet during the “girlfriend’s putter” episode, Sam demonstrated a lighter side. Taking advantage of a pause as the laughter died after Benny’s remark, Sam went a step further, blurting out “His wife!”

Timing is everything, and the range rocked hysterically. Ken, of course, did his best to pretend he hadn’t heard, defending the anonymous. Regardless, it was difficult not to appreciate the innocence of the moment. Amid all the historic and global socioeconomic effects this team’s visit represented, they were still kids having fun.

“They’re too young to realize how much of a big issue this is,” said Oliphant, who taught in Singapore for five years before coming to Bradenton. “They’re kind of going into it and enjoying it, but I guess when they’re 30 years old they’ll look back and say that was something a bit different that nobody else did.

“There are 22 kids (here) and maybe there’s one or two of them that will never make it in golf, but hopefully look back and think, ‘What a great time I had during those two weeks.’”

Benny never stopped smiling, except maybe once during an argument with teammate and older brother Ye Jianwei (Kevin). But as much as he enjoyed the experience, Benny said he doesn’t envision himself returning to the IMG Academies full time, a route his teammate Ken hopes to take.

“I would like to compete here, but I have a lot of friends back home,” Benny said through a translator. “(Even as I get older) it probably won’t be a big decision. I don’t want to leave my friends.”

Instructors here hope that is only youth talking.

“If his game’s top priority,” Joseph said, “he’s got to be here, there’s no doubt.”

During a casual putting contest one afternoon, Benny sank a 12-footer to take the lead. He raised his hat in the air for 20 seconds and announced, “I am best in the world.”

Everyone laughed, except him.

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