Karrie WEBB is the hottest golfer in LPGA history. Hotter than Nancy Lopez was when she won five straight tournaments in her rookie season, 1978. Hotter than Kathy Whitworth was when she was the leading money winner eight times in the nine years from 1965 through '73. Hotter than Dottie Pepper was when she chewed out her husband-caddie on national TV a few years ago. So strong is Webb's performance this year—five wins and a second in six starts after her runaway win at last week's Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif.—that the Justice Department is targeting her as a monopolistic enterprise. Remember the buzz about Webb's rivalry with three-time Player of the Year Annika Sorenstam? "I don't think there is a rivalry," LPGA standout Laura Davies said recently, "because nobody is in Karrie's league right now."
But notice that Davies said "right now." Webb's 10-stroke victory in the year's first major championship—the one that used to have the late Dinah Shore's name alongside the sponsor's—provided a glimpse into golf's future in the form of two book-bag-toting, hero-worshiping 13-year-olds named Wongluekiet. Early last week the precocious identical twins from Thailand, Aree and Naree, who are seventh-graders at the private Bradenton ( Fla.) Academy, slipped fan letters into Webb's locker at Mission Hills Country Club. A few days later Aree played with Webb in the last group of the final round, while Naree signed autographs and talked with reporters outside the ropes. For Webb, who is just 25, it was a reminder that great young golfers appear now with the suddenness of tropical hurricanes.
For the foreseeable future, though, Webb appears invincible. Her tour earnings this year of $611,629 are more than double those of Sorenstam, her nearest pursuer. Webb's scoring average is 70.07, almost a stroke better than Sorenstam's. A year ago the only smudge on Webb's r�sum�—aside from her antipathy toward journalists-was her failure to win a major. Now, with the Nabisco added to her win last August at the du Maurier Classic, reporters respectfully quiz her about a possible Grand Slam.
How sweet is it for Karrie? After she made the traditional winner's leap into the moat at the 18th green on Sunday, pop diva Celine Dion waded into the murky water to shake Webb's hand. "I stink right now," a barefoot and robed Webb beamed afterward, "but I'm very happy that I do."
The Wongluekiets were happy, too, in the dazed manner of children who find themselves in the parade instead of watching it. But then, the Wongluekiets are seemingly products of some TV writer's overheated imagination. They're the Olsen twins, only these girls eat Thai noodles and go to a fancy prep school in Florida where the kids are all training to be international sports stars! Watching them on the practice range at Mission Hills, most tour players thought the twins were precious-disciplined young teens with black ponytails and big feet. But then Aree and Naree opened with scores of 75 and 74, respectively, on the par-72 Dinah Shore Course that had been lengthened to 6,520 yards and toughened up since last year. The kids outplayed half the 102-player field last Thursday, including Sorenstam, defending U.S. Women's Open and LPGA champion Juli Inkster, and Hall of Famers Nancy Lopez, Amy Alcott and Pat Bradley. In fact, Aree and Naree were low sisters; the Sorenstams, Annika and Charlotta, shot 151 to the Wongluekiets' 149. "They didn't look out of place, either of them," said Jonathan Yarwood, Naree's coach at the David Leadbetter Junior Golf Academy in Bradenton. "In age they're 13, but as golfers they're 30."
Away from golf the twins are normal teenagers, absorbed with homework, movies and pop music. But last summer, when they played the American Junior Golf Association circuit, the girls flew between tour stops, lived in hotels and fell asleep before the 11 o'clock news, just like LPGA veterans. The pressure of a major championship? They looked baffled when reporters brought it up last week. After all, they've played in the Korean Open, not to mention the Florida high school girls' championship and the Leadbetter Junior Golf Academy Spring Tournament. "Once they're within the ropes, it's just another round of golf," said Yarwood. "They're conditioned to do X, Y and zed."
At the Nabisco, Aree took it way beyond zed. She shot a 71 on Friday and made the 36-hole cut by six strokes. On Saturday she flew up the leader board with the second-best round of the day, a 68, to move into a tie for third. "You've probably got another Tiger Woods here," said tour veteran Sherri Turner. Except, of course, that Woods was three years older than Aree when he played in his first PGA Tour event, the 1992 Los Angeles Open, and Tiger missed the cut.
Furthermore, we're talking about two Tiger Woodses here. Naree, who was relegated to spectator status after struggling to an 82 in the second round, outplayed her sister for most of '99, racking up wins in the AJGA Polo Classic and the Orange Bowl tournament. (Naree is now the nation's third-ranked junior; Aree, who won the U.S. Junior Girls title last July, is first.) The less-talkative twin, Naree best expressed what it felt like to be 13 and playing in a major when she said, "It's just like a blur of color when I'm out there."
Their invitation to the Nabisco was a bit of a tease because the twins can't play the tour regularly—say, on their summer vacations—unless LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw changes the current requirement that tour members be 18. Even if that happens, it's unlikely that the twins' parents or the Leadbetter coaches will let them play as pros. "There's a big responsibility when you're dealing with players so young and so good," said Yarwood. "We don't want them to burn out." He also warned against the assumption that today's prodigies will be tomorrow's stars. "I'm not making any huge claims for the girls. Sports is a very fickle thing."
Golf fans can be fickle, too—even experienced galleryites like LPGA Hall of Famer Louise Suggs. On Sunday morning the 77-year-old Suggs was in a chair at the back of the 1st tee, but not to send off her friend Webb, a fellow member at Pine Tree Country Club in Delray Beach, Fla., or the veteran Pepper, who was also in the final threesome. "I'm here to watch the kid," Suggs said with a smile. "I've seen the other two hit before." When Aree ripped her drive down the middle, Suggs shook her head and said, "I don't think she's old enough to know she can miss it."