Tee to green, a travel team

Golf: An influx of highly dedicated foreign-born players has raised the competition level among juniors -- and questions of finances.

August 04, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Veera Satarak left a job building golf courses in his native Thailand a little more than a year ago to give his 15-year-old daughter, Walailak, more of an opportunity in the United States. The Sataraks were not necessarily seeking a better lifestyle or improved education. They were looking for more chances for their daughter to play competitive golf.

The elder Satarak and his wife each work separate 40-hour shifts as cooks at an Asian restaurant near their new home in Paramount, Calif., to help support Walailak's dream of becoming a professional golfer.

It is a dream shared by most in the field of 64 players who remain in the U.S. Girls' Junior championship, which moves into match play today at the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club in Owings Mills.

"In Thailand, only a little bit of girls play golf," said Walailak Satarak. "There are only five tournaments for juniors. Here, I can't count how many."

Of the 67 tournaments for boys and girls ages 13 through 18, run by the Roswell, Ga.-based American Junior Golf Association, so far this year, 15 have been won by players who either still live in foreign countries or who only recently moved to the United States.

The biggest stir has been caused by another family from Thailand, the Wongluekiets. Twins Aree and Naree, who turned 13 in May, have com bined to win six events, including two of the year's first three majors. Their 16-year-old brother, Chan, also has won a tournament.

"What our goal has always been is to give these kids a platform for getting college scholarships," said Stephen Hamblin, the AJGA's executive director since 1983. "What they do beyond that is out of our hands."

Just as the influx of foreign players has raised the level of competition in the college and professional ranks, the arrival of players such as Grace Park from South Korea several years ago has heightened the bar among the junior girls.

The competition is not the only thing being raised.

There are also questions regarding the financial arrangements, in particular with the players attending the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Chan Wongluekiet went there by himself three years ago, with his sisters following the next year.

Vanee Wongluekiet and her husband, In-Jong Song, owned a 90-room business hotel in Chiandmia, Thailand's second-largest city. She said they are now "retired." Vanee Wongluekiet said it has cost $50,000 in the past three months to pay for traveling and tournament expenses.

But she is hesitant to talk about where the money is coming from or how the family can afford the Leadbetter Academy, which costs about $25,000 a year per player.

"Please don't mention about scholarships," she said as she watched Naree play a qualifying round Monday. "There is a lot of jealousy." Joshua Wortley, a business manager for the Leadbetter Academy, declined to comment when asked whether the Wongluekiets were on scholarship.

According to Tony Zirpoli, director of amateur status for the U.S. Golf Association, the rules were changed this year to allow American junior players to receive money to travel to tournaments, as well as for instructional fees from outside sources, as long as it is not in the form of corporate sponsorship.

"We felt it was inconsistent with our mission not to allow these players to get reasonable expenses, such as airfare and housing, paid for," Zirpoli said yesterday. "On one hand, we were funding all these junior programs for kids to get interested in golf. How could we say that we're not going to pay for expenses once they get older?"

Aree and Naree Wongluekiet (pronounced WAN-glue-KEET) seem oblivious to the attention they have received and the possible controversy they have stirred. In their size-10 tennis shoes and matching outfits, the 5-foot-3 twins have dominated the AJGA calendar this year.

Aree has won four times and finished second once in six events, breaking the scoring record in the Lucent Technologies Girls Junior Championship by five shots with rounds of 69, 67 and 70. Naree has won twice, including last month's AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions.

"We just try to do the best we can and forget that we're 13 years old," said Naree.

It is difficult for those watching the Wongluekiets to overlook their age -- or size.

"It's kind of scary, they're so awesome," said Texas Christian University coach Angie Larkin, one of 50 college coaches at this week's tournament. "They have no fear. It's kind of like when a 10-year-old climbs a tree and a 30-year-old climbs the same tree. The 30-year-old is afraid of falling, and the 10-year-old is trying to climb to the top."

"You look at them, and they look like little kids," said Leigh Ann Hardin, 17, the defending champion at the U.S. Girls' Junior championship. "They play like they're 20-year-olds. They're so consistent."

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