There are those who pass judgement early, who object to the direction in which they see a story headed and perhaps have difficulty accepting that a bigger picture might unfold, if given time.
The vibrant story of Naree Song will remind all of us to step back, to trust in the human spirit, to allow children to grow into the adults they are intended to be.
Should you know Naree to be the identical twin sister to Aree and that their junior phenom days didn’t translate into brilliant professional careers, don’t express disappointment. Be joyful to know that these women followed happy paths and are in positions where they help shape lives.
“If my 11-year-old self was told this is how my life in golf was going to turn out, I probably never would have guessed,” laughed Naree, who is in her eighth season as the Women’s Associate Head Coach at Harvard and counts three Ivy League Championships in that time.
It is a long way from Chiang Mai, the city in northern Thailand where Injohn Song and Vanee Wongluekiet sold their hotel to bring their twin girls and their oldest brother, Chan, to the United States. It is a long way from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Aree and Naree were nurtured into junior golf stars by David Leadbetter and his staff. And it is a long way from the roller-coaster days between 2005-2015 when the sisters, derailed by illnesses and injuries, never flourished as professionals.
Ah, but it is an even longer way from the truth to suggest this is a sad story.
“It is a good story, one that needs to be told,” said Dottie Pepper, who finished second to Karrie Webb, with Meg Mallon third in the first major of 2000, the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Glitzy leaderboard, for sure, but Pepper remembers the buzz made that week over the invited 13-year-olds – Aree, who finished T-10, and Naree, who played nicely but missed the cut.
To a reporter that week, Pepper praised the twins, but was hopeful that a “well-rounded life” would be ahead because they seemed like wonderful girls. Twenty-two years later, Pepper was thrilled to hear of Naree’s success at Harvard and of Aree’s acclaimed golf school in Bangkok, testaments to the sort of well-rounded life that sometimes eludes protégés.
“It’s not always about the competition,” said Pepper. “Sometimes, the highest level you can provide a child is to afford them the chance to be true to themselves.”
The journey, said Naree, is often the focal point of discussions with young golfers and she is adamant about this: “I am not sure the word ‘regret’ captures my feelings.”
Nor should it. She and her sister achieved remarkable success – and against long odds, given the young age at which they were asked to move to a foreign land. If Injohn – a native of South Korea – saw in his daughters a remarkable talent for golf, the girls expressed their total support for all levels of competition.
“We did the best with what we had at the time,” said Naree. “In a lot of ways, you don’t have a road map.”
What was never publicized much was Injohn’s battle with cancer. “He had Stage 4 lung cancer and lived way longer than we thought he would,” said Naree, who will forever be indebted to her father for providing this chance for a better life.
“He didn’t have long to live, but we always knew school was important to him.”
Leadbetter once conceded that Injohn was a driving force, but added, “that (Aree and Naree) motivate themselves.”
Nowhere did that shine through more than when Naree decided to stop chasing professional golf. That’s when she turned to something that burns within – to learn, to help. At Rollins College, Naree earned not only a B.A. in English but an M.A. in Human Resources while also coaching the women’s golf team.
That is when Kevin Rhoads, coach of Harvard’s men’s team, first crossed paths with Naree Song. He knew of her impressive junior and amateur career and concedes that “I thought before I knew her that she’d either be a little bit jaded and out of touch, or unusually insightful and experienced.
“She is definitely the latter.”
The chance to join the coaching staff at Harvard in 2015 was pretty much a perfect match. An iconic institution of academics and a relentlessly curious woman with a huge heart.
“I enjoy learning about other things. I love to use my skills to help people,” said Naree.
Rhoads marvels at Naree Song’s odyssey and how it shaped her. “She has an unusual balance of drive, talent, humor, work ethic and desire. She also carries herself with humility and grace. For anyone to have that example to learn from is a great gift.”
As a mentor, a coach, and a confidant, Naree Song delivers to her players great depth. But she also remains wildly fascinated with this game that has been her life.
“Golf and how I love the game, from my perspective, has changed. Everyone loves golf differently. There are different touch points for different people. Some people love to compete. Some people have a passion to play. For me, I just enjoy hitting balls.”
Just saying that made her laugh, because for the huge majority of her 36 years it was play and compete, compete and play. She has gracefully moved on to another phase of her life, however, and finds immense pleasure in what she’s doing.
“It’s why I chose to coach at Harvard. I had pursued golf to the 10th degree to play for myself. I feel I got to know that world well.
“But now, I see another side. These are women who are about education first and have a drive to do other things in the world. I love that.”