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Nine Years Later and Halfway Around the World

May 24, 2004

By Simit Shah

At the ripe old age of nine, Chan Wongluekiet decided to “retire” from golf.

“I tried it, but I didn’t like it that much in the beginning,” he said, recalling his childhood in Thailand.

Lucky for Georgia Tech, he reversed that decision as a 12-year-old. Nine years later and halfway around the world, Wongluekiet has carved his own place within Georgia Tech’s rich golf tradition.

The junior golfer has become one of the cornerstones for the Tech golf program, ranked sixth in the nation heading into this week’s NCAA Championship in Hot Springs, Va. The squad recently tied for third at the NCAA East Regional in New Haven, Conn., and tied for third in the ACC Championship in April.

Wongluekiet admits that he has been inconsistent this season, but he placed 11th at the ACC Championship for his fifth top-20 performance of the year. He is the only player on Tech’s team to play in all 12 tournaments this year, and was named to the All-ACC team.

“At the start of the year, I set some high goals,” he said. “At times, I felt I was really close to them. Other times, it wasn’t quite the way I expected. I kept working hard the whole season, and I think I’ve played a little bit better this spring.

“As a team, we’ve had our ups and downs. Our chemistry is great. This is my third year, and this team really has good chemistry. As we start to gel together, we’re seeing results.”

Wongluekiet brings plenty of experience to the table. As a freshman, he earned ACC Rookie of the Year and all-America honors while helping the team to a runner-up finish at the NCAA Championships.

“I was a freshman, and I didn’t really know very much,” he recalled. “I was just playing, and before I knew it, we had already won seven times. It seemed like it was easy, but it was really those older guys leading the way.”

“The golf at that point was easy,” added head coach Bruce Heppler. “Then those [upperclassmen] are gone and he’s supposed to lead. I don’t know that he or Nick (Thompson) were ready for that.”

The past two seasons have contained a fair share of highs and lows, but Wongluekiet and Thompson have provided a steadying force as this season has progressed. The duo has anchored the team’s play on the course and provided leadership off it.

“We’ve seen it, and we know what it can be,” he explained. “We try to help these younger guys with as much as we can. At times it’s been frustrating, but it’s also been fruitful. We didn’t win in our last four or five tournaments, but that doesn’t mean we’re not getting better. I feel that we are.”

Wongluekiet’s own game has steadily progressed since he moved to the United States at the age of 13. At the Bradenton Academy in Florida, he dominated the junior golf circuit, garnering an impressive array of titles and accolades.

When it came time to pick a college, Wongluekiet and his father searched for a school that featured strong golf and academics.

“It was a no-brainer,” he stated. “The golf here has been phenomenal with the history and the guys that have played here — Kuchar, Molder, Duval, Cink and so on. The school’s reputation was just as good, so this was the right place.”

However, others thought his choice to attend Tech was far-fetched. A coach at another college doubted Wongluekiet’s ability to succeed in the classroom.

“He told me that he did not see me succeeding here taking math courses, basically not doing well,” he related. “I wanted to prove to everybody that if you put your mind to it, you can do it.”

And that’s just what’s he done in his three years at Tech. The management major has earned an A or B in every class he’s taken and is on track to graduate next spring.

“The thing that impresses me the most is that he had several Division I coaches tell him he would not succeed here academically,” Heppler said. “He’s made the dean’s list every semester he’s been here, and he’s going to be named an academic all-American in a few weeks. That says everything you need to know about Chan.”

Wongluekiet is not the only member of his family to earn accolades on the golf course. His younger twin sisters, Aree and Naree, are 18-year-old phenoms. Aree is on the LPGA tour full-time this season after three years of limited play as an amateur. Naree is competing on Futures Tour circuit and will play in selected LPGA events.

“I’m proud of them, and we’re very close,” said a smiling Wongluekiet, who plans to caddie for Naree this summer. “People come up to me say, ‘Hey, you’re Naree and Aree’s brother.’

“It never used to be that way. When they first came over (to the U.S.), people called them ‘Chan’s sisters.’ I’m still waiting for that day it goes back to that.”

While his sisters already have a foothold in the world of professional golf, Wongluekiet aspires for the same opportunity on the men’s tour. He finished second at the local U.S. Open qualifying event on May 17 to advance to sectional qualifying. Another stellar round would place him in the Open field at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y. in June.

“Everybody here wants to play pro,” he said. “That’s one of the great things about the program. I’ve gotten a chance to be around the guys from Tech that play on the tour. If I have an opportunity, I have to give it a try.”

In the meantime, he’s focused on a strong finish at the NCAAs this season and a successful senior season.

“The whole Georgia Tech experience has really grown on me,” Wongluekiet said. “When I first got here, I was young. I really didn’t know much about the history of the school, but I’ve really embraced it. Now I got to all the football and basketball games. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it in a heartbeat. I have one year left, and I definitely don’t want it to be over yet.”

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