Sisters, Act 2
After nearly a decade of achievement and disappointment, twins Aree and Naree Song are happy, healthy and, at 22, dreaming of a second chance
As children, not even teenagers, Aree (above, left) and Naree Song were swept away by an adventure in which their parents sold all they had in Thailand so the twins could study golf in Florida. The idea was exciting, and the girls were much too young to understand the risks let alone resist them. Once in America, the Song sisters blossomed instantly into can't-miss kids, winning junior tournaments by the handful and making their LPGA debut at age 13, with Aree finishing T-10 in the 2000 Kraft Nabisco Championship, one of the tour's four majors. Nine years later, the Songs have little to show for their early success except regrets, second thoughts and the dream of a second chance.
Perhaps they turned pro too young. Perhaps they were pushed too hard. Perhaps, in the pursuit of golf, they never developed a complete sense of self. But one thing they always had was each other, a confidante who understood the pressure. Together, the Song sisters have used their adversity to find a life off the golf course, and they now hope to resume one on it.
This much hasn't changed about the twins: They are remarkably identical, even though at 22 they no longer dress alike as they did as kids. Also apparent is their gentle way with each other and the joy in the laughter that often punctuates a sentence. Once under the meddlesome eye of their father, Injong Song, the sisters have shared a house in Orlando for two years, their parents moving even further away—to New Jersey—last year.
"It's better to have some distance," says Naree at an outdoor restaurant near the twins' home. "It was tough in the beginning [having Dad at tournaments], but you are so young you need someone with you." The sisters relish their independence but speak of their parents with affection, communicate with them frequently and helped their father with his English for this story.
Naree's pro career sputtered early. She has played just 17 LPGA events since joining the tour in 2005, plagued by chronic fatigue syndrome since 2006. Aree began LPGA life with more magic at the Kraft Nabisco, nearly winning in 2004 in her third start as a tour member. But a final-round flop at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship five weeks later, a day after she turned 18, proved to be a significant speed bump. Last year Aree played only twice because of irritable bowel syndrome. Both irritable bowel and chronic fatigue are syndromes researchers say may be stress-related.
"Taking time off put a lot of things in perspective for me," says Aree, who took as many as 22 supplements a day for her digestive problems. "I think starting my career at such a young age, I never got to fully develop as a well-rounded person. I didn't really have too much balance in my life. I think I am at a better place now and know how to take care of myself better and not sacrifice too much for golf."
Golf came to the girls at such a young age they never knew anything else. "We left Thailand when we were 11," says Naree. "It was exciting. Our parents asked us, 'Do you want to go to America to be with your brother [Chan, at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla.]?' I said, 'Sure, why not? That sounds like fun.' We were just too young to comprehend what kind of decision that was."
Injong Song played golf when not working in his hotel in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand. He started Chan, his oldest child, in the game and soon the girls followed. "They had a chance to pursue their dreams, and they took it," says Chan, who played at Georgia Tech, which he calls "the best four years ever, and I wouldn't trade [them] for anything." He now lives in Bangkok, Thailand, and is trying to make it on the Asian Tour. "It has been very difficult [for me] to see them not be able to perform their best on the golf course because of health issues."
For Injong, his daughters' early success was too good to resist. "They won tournaments in Thailand and represented the Thai team in national competitions," he says. "I was very proud. I try to train them to be No. 1 golfers in the world. The other thing is they are twins so if it works out, it will be good for golf."
Success also would be financially beneficial for the Songs. Injong and his wife, Vanee Wongluekiet, whose name the children used until 2002, sold their hotel to finance the golf careers of the children. Aree won the 1999 U.S. Girls' Junior at 13, the youngest to do so, and 15 national junior events from 1999-2001, while Naree won eight and finished second nine times, frequently to her sister.
"They were phenomenal," recalls David Whelan, director of instruction at the Leadbetter Academy. "We get a lot of kids who swing the club well and hit the ball well, but these two could swing the club well, hit the ball well and play the game well. They were way ahead of the others their age."
The Kraft Nabisco invited them to play in 2000, despite complaints that 13 was too young to be granted exemptions into majors. Naree missed the cut, but Aree answered the critics by playing in the final group with eventual winner Karrie Webb and Dottie Pepper. Aree shot a 75 for a T-10 finish that beat Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam.
"The first thing I noticed was the size of their hands and feet," says Pepper, now an analyst for NBC and Golf Channel. "I thought, 'Oh my, if they grow into those, they are going to be enormous.' But they never did." Both are a shade under 5-feet-5.