Aree Song has played in only four events as a pro, and already
she's in jeopardy of losing her and. After a tie for fifth in her
LPGA debut at last month's Welch's/Fry's Championship, the
17-year-old phenom came in second two weeks ago at the Kraft
Nabisco Championship, the season's first major. The youngest
player on tour by almost two years, she held the lead through the
first 12 holes on Sunday, and even when she got to the par-5 18th
hole two shots down, Aree didn't falter. Instead she coolly
nailed a 30-foot putt for eagle, forcing Grace Park to make a
six-foot birdie putt for her victory. "She handles herself like a
veteran," says tour mainstay Lorie Kane. "Her age doesn't mean
anything. I'm sure I'll be chasing Aree."
Aree, in short, is becoming a star, a singular sensation outshone
only by the supernova that is Michelle Wie. That has left Aree
feeling weird because she has never before been simply Aree. She
and her identical twin sister have always been Aree and Naree.
Those three little letters symbolize not only a conjunction of
their names but also of their lives. For as long as they both can
remember, Aree and Naree shared a queen-sized bed, a wardrobe and
the same hairbrush. They laughed at the same time, said hello in
unison and picked the same movies from their vast collection of
DVDs. They wore the same hairstyles and loved shopping and Mom's
Thai cooking. They disagreed only on their taste in boys. Last
year each signed a letter of intent to play golf at Florida. Aree
and Naree, a two-headed beast with a three-word name.
Then, last July, Aree had a change of heart. She would not go to
college. She was ready to turn pro. Naree was not. So the
sisters, who had never spent more than a week apart, suddenly
faced the prospect of goodbye. When the day came for Naree to
leave for school, they hugged. Then Naree climbed into the family
car and closed the door. As the car pulled away, Aree called into
the growing space between them, "Call me." Aree. Naree.
Born in Bangkok to a Korean father, In Jong Song, and a Thai
mother, Vanee, the sisters had grown up using their mother's
maiden name, Wongluekiet, because it was easier to have a Thai
last name while they lived in that country. In Jong owned and
operated a hotel for seven years in Chiang Mai, in northern
Thailand, before moving his family to Bradenton, Fla., in 1997 so
the twins and their then 14-year-old brother, Chan, could attend
the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. One by-product of leaving
Thailand is that it allowed the sisters to honor their father by
taking his last name, which they did in 2003. Last winter they
also began taking Korean lessons and taekwondo classes. "My dad
has sacrificed a lot for us," Aree says. "It's something he has
always wanted to see happen. It's the least we could do for him."
April 11, 2004
Growing up, the twins rarely left each other's side. They took
the same classes at Bradenton Academy--where the Leadbetter
students went to school--ate lunch together, practiced golf
together, studied together and ganged up on their brother
together. They also used their identical looks to pull pranks.
School friends eventually gave up trying to separate the two and
called them both 'Ree. Their teachers didn't put up much of a
fight, either. In 11th grade Naree once took Aree's Spanish test,
and Aree took one of Naree's English exams. "But we always got
the same grades," Naree says. "The teachers got us confused a
lot." The pair graduated with the same grade point average, 4.0.
On the course the 5'4" dynamos built impressive amateur resumes.
Aree won 16 national junior tournaments, including the 1999 U.S.
Girls' at age 13 to become the youngest winner of the event in
USGA history. She also made 11 of 15 cuts on the LPGA tour, tying
for 10th at the 2000 Nabisco and coming in fifth at the 2003 U.S.
Women's Open. Naree won three national junior events, was the low
amateur at the 2000 Women's Open and took the Kosaido Thailand
Ladies' Open when she was 14. The trailblazing twins were among
the top teen phenoms in the country, though it was clear that
Aree's game was superior to Naree's.
"Aree was the first to do things no one had heard of," says
Jonathon Yarwood, the twins' coach. "She doesn't hold back. It's
not that Naree is a worse player. She just needs more time and
Naree's placid, calculated swing reflects her more reserved
personality. Aree, who's nine minutes younger, is more outgoing
and plays more aggressively, swinging from the tips of her toes."
Two weeks after last year's Open, Aree made the toughest decision
of her life. She put on a button-down shirt and a nice pair of
slacks, and her parents drove her to LPGA headquarters in Daytona
Beach to meet commissioner Ty Votaw. "I felt my game was where it
should be, and I felt ready to turn pro," says Aree, who turns 18
on May 1. Her family, Naree included, supported her fully. Votaw
waived the tour's age minimum (18), which is his prerogative
under the LPGA's by-laws. When Aree qualified by tying for fifth
at LPGA Q school in October, she became the youngest tour member
since Marlene Hagge cofounded the LPGA in 1950 at age 16.
For Aree the first week apart was the toughest. "It was hard for
me to focus because I was always wondering what [Naree] was
doing," she says. Naree had an equally rough time. At Florida,
Aree and Naree were scheduled to take the same classes and to
live together in a dormitory. Instead, Naree went to classes by
herself and did her laundry on her own. "Sometimes I'd look
around and think, Oh my, I'm by myself," Naree says. "I don't
know how other people do it."
As the fall progressed, the sisters made the best of things.
While Aree was securing her tour card, Naree competed in college
tournaments, placing among the top 10 in three of her four
starts. Still, each of them felt the other's absence. Naree, in
particular, saw her sister headed for the big time and grew
melancholy. Even if she played four years of college and then
made it to the LPGA tour, Aree would already be an established
veteran. Instead of reuniting as Aree and Naree they would be
Aree and also Naree. The extra distance was too much to bear.
Naree returned home for winter break and did not go back to
school. "College was a good learning experience, but I wanted to
start pursuing my career," she says. "I knew if Aree could do it,
I could do it too."
Gators coach Jill Briles-Hinton was far less sanguine about the
decision. "I was pretty surprised," Briles-Hinton says. "Naree
and I had talked, and she indicated that she would be [at
Florida] through nationals. Before we signed them, I made it
clear to the girls: If they took a scholarship, they would stay
at least a year; otherwise I wouldn't be able to give it to
The girls felt bad about the way things worked out at Florida,
but they had a larger agenda to pursue. They were Aree and Naree
again, the three-letter lifeline between them reconnected. In
January the family moved into a three-bedroom house in Orlando
and joined Bay Hill Club and Lodge. Naree had missed any chance
to qualify for the 2004 LPGA season, but she was welcome on the
Futures tour, and so the sisters spent the next three months
together, preparing for their pro debuts.
With the start of the season, they've once again had to go their
separate ways, but it's easier this time because on their days
and weeks off they return to the same house. Even when they are
apart, in some deeper sense Aree and Naree are moving in parallel
lines. Any lingering anxiety is lessened by daily half-hour phone
conversations, during which they also include Chan, who was the
Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year in 2002 at Georgia
Tech, where he's now a junior.
Their close ties to their parents also help keep them feeling
connected. Each parent travels on tour full time with a
twin--Vanee with Naree and In Jong with Aree. At tournaments Aree
spends practically every waking moment with her dad. A slight man
with a tan, weathered face, In Jong follows Aree through her
round, diligently taking notes. Last month, right after the first
round of the Safeway International in Phoenix, where she came in
19th, Aree headed straight for the range with her father at her
side. As he pointed out targets and spoke to her in Thai, she
nodded and then pounded balls into the twilight.
Meanwhile, Naree was on the opposite side of the country
preparing for her second pro event, the Tampa Bay Next Generation
Futures Classic in Oldsmar, Fla., in which she would finish 17th
and earn $852. That's a long way from the $191,946 Aree has
racked up so far, but it's a start, and Naree is sure that before
long she too will qualify for the LPGA tour. Reunited, they can
begin pursuing their shared goal of becoming the No. 1 player on
tour. It's a career path that will force them to go from Aree and
Naree to Aree or Naree, but that is one distinction they're
willing to make. "We'll have to fight for the trophy," says
Naree, "because I'm not sharing."
"It's not that Naree is a worse player," says the twins' coach,
"She just needs more time and experience."
"I'd look around and think, Oh my, I'm by myself," Naree says. "I
don't know how other people do it."