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Two Good

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s the Tuesday before the Nabisco Championship and already there is major championship buzz.

On the course, Karrie Webb looks a little more serious than usual during her pro-am round. At the practice range, Annika Sorenstam’s focus is slightly more intense, and everywhere she goes, defending champion Dottie Pepper is thinking about a repeat.

Somewhere in the middle of these LPGA stars, swarmed in a sea of tents and flags flapping in the wind, 13-year-old twins Aree and Naree Song Wongluekiet (wong-loo-KEE-it) are creating another kind of buzz.

The Wongluekiet sisters, who for the last year have dominated the girls’ junior golf scene, were given sponsors’ exemptions to play this week in the Nabisco.

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They are the youngest to play in an LPGA tournament since 9-year-old Beverly Klass in 1965 and the youngest ever in an LPGA major.

Despite their youth, the twins seem at ease under the spotlight and don’t appear nervous about competing with their idols.

“I think it’s a great honor to get invited to play in this tournament,” Aree said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to watch the greatest players up close.”

You can bet they’ll be taking notes on whatever they see.

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“I would like to compare myself [to the pros] to see what I’m missing and see what I need to get to the next level,” Naree said. “I’ll probably be more nervous when I get on the first tee, but right now I’m just having fun.”

Aree and Naree were not eligible to play many national junior tournaments until their 13th birthday May 1. Since then, they have combined for 11 national tournament titles, including four of the five major girls’ championships.

Aree won the U.S. Girls’ championship last summer, becoming the youngest to win a USGA title.

Aree is ranked No. 2 nationally, Naree is No. 3. Virada Nirapathpongporn, a native of Thailand and a high school senior who has signed with Duke, is No. 1.

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“They are on a level of their own,” said Angela Rho of Fullerton, 18, who is ranked No. 5. “They have elevated girls’ golf to another level. When I was 13 I barely could break 80. Ever since they came out, I find myself working harder to get to their level.”

Those who know their games are confident the Wongluekiets will surprise some people this week.

“Realistically, I think they can make the cut,” said Peter Ripa, chief operating officer for the American Junior Golf Assn., the national organizing body.

“I don’t think that would surprise us at all. People who haven’t seen them just don’t know.”

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The Wongluekiets, born in Thailand, began playing golf at age 7 1/2 after tagging along to the driving range with their father, In Jong Song, and brother, Chan. They moved to Bradenton, Fla., at age 11 and attend the David Ledbetter Golf Academy, a specialized school that includes golf instruction.

In Jong Song sold the hotel he owned in Thailand so he could afford to enroll his children in the golf academy. Chan, three years older than his twin sisters, left for Florida a year before the rest of the family. He is nationally ranked No. 5 among boys.

Aree and Naree are twins in every sense. They dress alike, think alike and both call Webb their favorite player.

Their natural sibling rivalry is intensified because they share the same passion and goal. But the sisters have found a way to separate golf and family.

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“When Naree is on the course, I treat her as a competitor,” Aree said. “I certainly want to do everything I can to beat her, but at the end of the day she is still my sister and we still live together.”

Some say the sisters, not yet in high school, will be ready for a pro career soon. They are not so sure.

“I don’t think there is a time or age [to turn pro],” Aree said. “I’ll turn pro when my game is ready. I think there’s still a while to go.”

Pepper, who recalled that in 1983 when she was invited to play here as a 17-year-old but couldn’t afford the plane ticket, is overjoyed to see the twins playing this week. But she warns that turning professional too early has risks.

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“I don’t know anything about them,” Pepper said. “But do I think that the LPGA Tour is a good place to grow up? Probably not. High school and college are pretty important.”

Neither twin will discount the option of skipping college for a pro career, but each points to the fact that they are not yet even in high school.

“It takes a certain maturity level to play as a professional,” Ripa said. “Talent-wise, I’m sure they would be ready soon, but mentally it takes time to get there. It takes a wealth of experience that only time can give you.”

One thing is for sure, they say, when they do turn professional, it will be together.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Nabisco Championship

* Where: Rancho Mirage.

* When: Thursday-Sunday.

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* Course: Mission Hills Country Club (6,460 yards, par 72).

* TV: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 12:30-2:30 p.m.) and Ch. 7 (Saturday, 1:30-3 p.m.; Sunday, 1-3 p.m.)


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