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Identical twins in sports are more likely to be a source of diversion than domination, but the sister act of Aree and Naree Wongluekiet, the 13-year-old look-alikes from Thailand, could change that, and soon. Last week the twins accepted invitations to play in the LPGA's first major of the season, the March 23-26 Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif. That will make them, after Beverly Klass (MY SHOT, page G12), the youngest girls ever to play in an LPGA event.
Aree already is the youngest person to hold a USGA title—she won the U.S. Junior in August—while Naree, who reached the semifinals in the Junior before withdrawing because of a foot injury, recently won the prestigious Orange Bowl tournament in Miami. (Aree tied for second.) Between them they won 10 top junior titles last year and had four second-place finishes. They also narrowly missed qualifying for last weeks LPGA Subaru Memorial in Naples, Fla. With only two spots available, Naree shot a 70 and Aree a 69, which got her into a playoff that she lost to Heather Bowie. "They're good enough to keep their tour cards right now, says Andrew Rice, who teaches Aree at the David Leadbetter Junior Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where the twins live with their parents and 17-year-old brother, Chan, the second-ranked junior boy in the U.S.
The twins intend to join the LPGA someday, and though their plan is to attend college for two years before turning pro, many believe they will be on the tour long before that "They will probably run out of competition on the amateur level," says Lead-better. "I can see them making the move in two or three years."
If so, commissioner Ty Votaw will have to exempt the twins from the rule that sets the minimum age for LPGA membership at 18. Last week Votaw did not rule out that possibility. "I would have to decide if they are ready both physically and emotionally," he said. "If they play some LPGA events on sponsor exemptions, that would be a way to demonstrate if they're ready."
Nabisco tournament director Terry Wilcox, who received a letter from the girls' father, In Jong Song, seeking invitations, as well as letters from Gary Gilchrist, director of the Lead-better Academy, and from an International Management Group agent vouching for their ability, says he couldn't think of a good reason to exclude the Wongluekiets. "They are obviously very young, but they're also obviously good enough to play, and that was good enough for me," Wilcox says. Normally the tournament invites about five amateurs, including the reigning U.S. Amateur champ, and last year it extended an invitation to the winner of the 1998 U.S. Junior, 17-year-old Leigh Anne Hardin.
To date, the most accomplished twins in golf have been Alan and Curtis Strange, although Alan never finished better than 28th in 16 Tour starts. While the Wongluekiets are more equal in ability than the Stranges, they are as indistinguishable as the brothers.
The Wongluekiets's own brother can't tell them apart on the phone. "They get real mad when that happens," says Chan. Both girls are 5' 4" and weigh 120 pounds. The twins still sleep in the same bed and share the same wardrobe, and have been apart for more than a day just once in their lives. They also use identical clubs—only their drivers are different. To tell them apart, the Leadbetter pros check the girls' necklaces (Aree wears a Winnie the Pooh pendant and Naree a gold N) and request that they wear different shoes (men's size 9½).
The girls' games have progressed at the same pace since they were five. Any surge of improvement by one has spurred the other to catch up. Tiger Woods first saw them play, in November 1997, at a clinic in Thailand. His reaction to a pair of 11-year-olds simultaneously rifling 210-yard drives? "First, absolutely awesome talent," he says. "Second, I thought I had double vision."
Those who deal with the Wongluekiets on a daily basis say they aren't entirely alike. Naree, who was born nine minutes ahead of her sister, is more extroverted and congenial, while Aree is a more intense competitor. Although both now average more than 240 yards off the tee, Naree, who is taught by Jonathon Yarwood, has a more methodical, textbook swing and is a conservative course manager. Aree goes after the ball harder, plays more by feel and likes to cut doglegs and go for the pin. "Aree is slightly more athletic," says Rice, "but when Naree's swing is on, she's unbeatable."
No one expects one of the twins to win the Nabisco, but that doesn't mean expectations won't be high. "I wouldn't be surprised to see them make the cut, maybe even get on the leader board," says Leadbetter. "Bottom line: They will shock people with how well they can play."