DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – After smoothing a 3-wood into the middle of the 10th fairway at LPGA International’s Legends Course, Aree Song, the LPGA’s original prodigy, was left with 145 yards to the pin. She drew her 7-iron, entered her pre-shot routine and launched the ball straight at the flag.
“I saw it disappear, but I didn’t see it go in,” Song said of the eagle-2. “There was a small group of volunteers that started yelling, so I figured it must have gone in the hole.”
The drama of the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Classic, it was not. But that’s life at LPGA Q-School.
“I actually hired (the volunteers) in to cheer this week,” Song joked.
Song, who made her Kraft debut in 2000 at the age of 13, was the first player to be granted a special age exemption by the LPGA, making her first pro start in 2004 at 17 years old. Morgan Pressel would follow suit in 2006.
During Song’s rookie season, she missed just three cuts and recorded four top 10s, including a second-place showing at the Kraft, where she closed in dramatic fashion, making the only finishing-hole eagle of the tournament, to temporarily grab the lead. Song finished 28th on the money list in her rookie campaign, but that would be her high-water mark, as illness and injury have kept her out of the top 100 for the past three years.
But things are looking up.
“It’s been a process to just keep playing and figure out what I need to work on,” said Song, who now sits T-2 after three rounds of LPGA Q-School finals, one shot behind Libby Smith at 6 under. “Coming out after the injury, I didn’t know where my game was. But I’ve gotten all of my power back.”
The injury Song mentions was sustained at the 2009 Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic. Playing from the trees, Song tried to make a downswing at her ball, but her club got snagged by a tree on her backswing and didn’t budge, resulting in nerve damage to the left shoulder. Additionally, Song was diagnosed in 2007 with irritable bowel syndrome and adrenal insufficiency, conditions that left her extremely fatigued and barely able to complete some rounds.
“There was no surgery; it’s been just a lot of shots and drugs since then,” she said, laughing again.
Song, now 24, may be the same age as many of the players at this week’s Q-School finals, but she grew up in a different golfing world than every one of them. She became the youngest U.S. Girls’ Junior champion in history in 1999 at age 12. The next year, she tied for 10th at her first Kraft Nabisco, playing in the final group with Karrie Webb and Dottie Pepper on Sunday. But like many young talents, the stars never aligned and she wasn’t able to live up to the huge expectations. A new wave of junior phenoms quickly took her place.
As Song battles her way back onto the LPGA tour, she is doing so with the maturity of a seasoned veteran – a product of spending her formative years in the spotlight.
“I was a lot shorter on patience back then, for sure,” Song said, reflecting on the times when she would fire at every pin on the course. “If I made a bogey when I was younger, I would need to birdie the next hole or else there would be a problem,” she said.
Others close to Song also have seen the transformation in her attitude on the course.
“When you’re younger, golf is your whole focus,” said Aree’s twin sister, Naree, also an accomplished women’s player and now an assistant coach at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. “But as you start to get older and you start traveling on your own, you start to learn how to handle things. If you can come out on the other side, I think it really helps you mature.”
One player who probably can relate is 15-year-old prodigy Alexis Thompson, who recently petitioned the LPGA for 12 starts in 2011, an increase from the six allowed for minors.
“I thought six (exemptions) was quite a few, to be honest,” Song said. “I mean, playing in pro tournaments is nice, obviously, but being with your friends and going to school and hanging out, those are the times you don’t really get back.
“It’s a trade-off, for sure.”
While she may not be atop the world rankings, or even in the top 300 – dreams she undoubtedly had as a 13-year-old playing on major Sundays – Song is taking pride in her showing this week in Daytona and inching toward another opportunity to make a mark on women’s golf.
“I’m pretty close, I think,” she said. “I’m hitting the ball a lot better than I was two years ago. I’m working out a lot more and taking the right steps. I just need to be patient and it will come back together.”