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 resume--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
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
Naree, meanwhile, walked the course with her 17-year-old brother,
Chan, the nation's second-ranked junior boy golfer, and her
father, In-John Song. "I not star," a smiling Song said when a
woman offered him a golf ball to autograph. But Naree, already at
ease with the demands of celebrity, signed like--well, like a pro.
"If I'm going to sign so many autographs," she joked, "I'd better
shorten my name."
Webb's response to all this Wongsense was classic. Leading by
eight strokes at the start of play on Sunday but perhaps feeling
that she was losing the crowd to the teenager--some foot
soldiers in Aree's Army were rushing to the next hole before
Webb could putt out--she did what any spunky Australian golf
legend would do: She knocked her six-iron tee shot into the cup
on the 170-yard par-3 5th hole. At the green the normally
undemonstrative Webb pumped up the cheering crowd with a waving
gesture, yanked the ball out of the hole and tossed it into the
The rest of Webb's round was a slow-motion coronation. When she
two-putted for 70 on the 18th green, her 274 total gave her the
first double-digit winning margin in Nabisco history, the
biggest check of her season ($187,500) and, for a while at
least, a psychological edge over any opponent older than 13.
"It's confidence, confidence, confidence, confidence," said Meg
Mallon, who closed with a 67 to finish third. Hard-earned
confidence, Mallon hastened to say. "Karrie reminds me of Pat
Bradley, Betsy King, Beth Daniel, Patty Sheehan. They were
always the last players practicing on the putting green, and
there's no secret why they were the best players. That's Karrie."
It was hard work, in fact, that saved Webb at the Nabisco. The
week before, at the Standard Register Ping in Phoenix, she
fought her swing a little and missed some six-foot putts down
the stretch, allowing Charlotta Sorenstam to end her winning
streak at five (counting the Australian Open, which is not an
LPGA event). When Webb got to Rancho Mirage, she hit the
practice range and the putting green, and by Wednesday night she
was again her unbeatable self. Over four rounds Webb hit a
tournament-best 60 of 72 greens in regulation, drove the ball an
average of 10 yards farther than anyone else on the leader board
and hit into only one greenside bunker. Inkster, who finished
17th, sounded downright fatalistic about Webb: "What are you
going to do, tell her to slow down?" But Inkster added, "It's
great for golf."
Even better for golf would be a sequel to the Karrie, Aree and
Naree Show, possibly at the U.S. Women's Open in Chicago in
July, assuming, of course, that the twins eat their vegetables,
clean their room and get through regional qualifying. Aree
scored a 75 on Sunday to finish at one-over 289 and in a tie for
10th place; she would have tied for sixth if her ball hadn't
moved an eighth of an inch while she addressed it on the 14th
green. Aree didn't see the movement--the nosey-parker TV cameras
caught it--but the penalty for failing to replace the ball
before putting was two strokes. Said Aree, "This is the first
time something like this ever happened to me."
It was a line that applied all week long.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN STRIKING Webb was on target, hitting 60 of 72 greens.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN SPARKLING DEBUT Aree, unfazed at playing in her first major, made the cut by six strokes after a one-under 71 on Friday.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY J.D. CUBAN DOUBLE'S TROUBLE That's Naree, not Aree, and you could tell her from her sister by their play on Friday, when Naree slumped to an 82.
When Aree ripped her drive down the middle, Suggs said, "I don't
think she's old enough to know that she can miss it."
Feeling she was losing the crowd to a teenager on Sunday, Webb
knocked her six-iron tee shot into the cup on the par-3 5th hole.