Now, at age 21, Naree, both a non-exempt LPGA Tour member and a member of the Duramed FUTURES Tour, is struggling to recover from a mysterious ailment that zaps her energy and makes her dizzy just to lean over to put a tee into the ground. She is trying to muster up excitement for the game again. She also is pondering career options.
Turning professional at 17, Song now wonders if the path she took in the game less than a decade ago should have been different. She wonders if she should have practiced less and been a kid more. She wonders if she should have stayed at the University of Florida for more than the one semester she spent in college golf.
“We really overused our bodies as kids and that -- combined with the stress of playing professional golf on tour -- has caused problems,” she said. “We barely took a day off. Maybe it’s catching up with us now because Aree also has stomach problems. I think there’s definitely a point when there’s too much, too soon.”
But that was hard to see back then. Naree Song won eight national junior tournaments and posted nine runner-up finishes, played in the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship as a sponsor’s exemption from 2000-2003, and played in 12 LPGA events as an amateur, making the cut five times. As an amateur, she also won the 2001 Kosaido Thailand Ladies Open – a professional event. She turned pro in 2004 and won once on the Duramed FUTURES Tour, recording four additional top-10 finishes. She also earned LPGA status that fall at LPGA Q-School.
Song was right on track, just as planned, and then suddenly her fast-moving career slammed on the brakes. She made only three cuts in nine 2005 LPGA events. In 2006, she made four cuts in eight events. In 2007, she didn’t play at all.
With trips to a neurologist, an endocrinologist and even to natural homeopathic doctors, she was finally told that she had likely picked up a parasite at a restaurant in Mexico during an LPGA event. Song went on antibiotics and radically adjusted her diet.
“I was pretty frustrated and golf really took a back seat,” she said. “I was struggling just to live my daily life. Everything is kind of a blur, but I can tell you that I didn’t think about golf for quite a while.”
What she did think about came on those days when she didn’t have the energy to leave the house, much less swing a golf club. She thought about growing up quickly in the spotlight. She thought about lost chances in amateur golf. She thought about fishing trips and bike rides that were never taken. And she thought about how her father’s persistent push worked for her twin, but not for her.
“I’m more emotional and Aree is more analytical,” said Naree. “I need to feel comfortable and improve gradually. Maybe I was playing up to my parents’ expectations. I had to start thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Song’s return to golf started in her head, then it was time to test her body. Last summer, in rounds of casual golf, she felt dizzy and weak. In one round last August, she fell asleep in the golf cart after only three holes.
“I was a mess,” she said. “I started wondering what else I could do if I couldn’t play on the tour.”
By the end of last summer, she went home to Orlando, Fla., and rested until January of this year. Doctors planned a structured schedule that had her walking and eating several times a day. She received a medical exemption from the LPGA’s Q-School last November and she set the goal to be well by Q-School this fall. And then the exploration began.
Song thought about going to culinary school and even went to work at an upscale Thai restaurant in Orlando. She was serving customers and studying cooking techniques in the kitchen. One day, while serving a guest in her little black necktie, the customer asked, “Aren’t you a golfer?” And Song replied, “Oh, no … now what would you like to order?”
But try as she might, Song knew the answer she was seeking was not hiding in the kitchen. In her heart, she knew her true expertise. So she called the place where she grew up when she and her family first arrived from Thailand – the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla. -- and asked if she could drive over. She wanted to learn how to teach golf.
Song worked with top junior players at the academy. She even worked with adults. And now, she is on track to become a certified golf instructor.
“I think she’s put golf into perspective,” said her sister Aree, a member of the LPGA Tour. “Naree is ready to come back to golf, but at the same time, there are other things she can do that she’s really good at doing.”
Naree Song missed the cut at last week’s Duramed FUTURES Tour event, but used the tournament as a way to gauge where she is with her health. She says she feels “about 80 percent” back to normal. And while regaining her form in competition is still a goal, for now, she is finding satisfaction in helping other rising stars not flare out too soon.
“I can relate to the kids out there sitting in the hot seat,” she said. “But coaches can influence the way parents think. It’s about finding balance and I try to help build a nice team for the kid. Nobody ever tries to miss a shot on purpose.”
Naree Song has learned a lot since those first teenage days of facing the press at an LPGA major championship. She was wide-eyed and ready then, staring head-on into an exciting new future. But nearly a decade later and with a new sense of understanding about herself, her health and the need for balance in her life, the remarkable thing for Song is that anything is still possible.
FRANK UIJLENBROEK WORLDSPORTPICS