I’ve spent the day thinking about this issue with the LPGA demanding its players speak proficient English by 2009, or 2011 if they are rookies next year.
It is a fascinating matter. The lines were ablaze on sports radio this afternoon as I drove to a television station to be a talking head on the matter. My counterpart on the matter was Bill Carroll, a Toronto radio personality. I bet dimes to dollars he’s never been to an LPGA tournament, but he had a strong opinion on the decision by LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens to force players to speak English or risk suspension.
Take away the heated rhetoric in the matter (and that’s tough to do), I think it comes down to this: The LPGA Tour is losing sponsors faster than John Daly loses, well, wives or sponsors (your pick). And in lousy economic times south of the Canadian border, finding new sponsors willing to pony up for a golf tournament that receives little television or media exposure and will show little return on investment is going to be tough.
So call it misplaced pragmatism, but I think Bivens thinks her Korean players need to be able to speak the language of business to the sponsors and those putting up thousands in pro-ams. I don’t think she’s a racist, but she’s clearly misjudged this issue and how it would appear to the public. The last time she misjudged something this badly was the fight with the Associated Press, and she would later back down on the issue.
Do players need to be able to speak English? Good question. I must admit I’d be hesitant to pay a few thousand on a foursome wherein the pro couldn’t interact with the guests I bring along. That said, I wonder how many of the 45 Koreans on tour can’t speak any English. I doubt it is that many, but there is a story doing the rounds about Kyeong Bae, whose English was so poor that she left a tournament early, not aware that it was four rounds, and not three.
Is that common? I doubt it. But there surely are some issues for the LPGA Tour in trying to market Korean players, who to middle America must seem all the same. They are all Koreans even if there are easy ways to distinguish them. That said, there are, after all, 10 ladies on tour with the surname “Kim,” and an equal number of Parks. And the Koreans tend to play an exacting type of golf, long on finesse, but not the powerful game which illicits “oohs and ahs,” from spectators. They are great players — but not in the Brittany Lincicome manner.
Is Bivens a racist? No. As my National Post column documents tomorrow, she’s simply an executive witnessing numerous tournament sponsors departing. This latest move looks desperate. How bad our things? Check out this GolfWeek story — at least three big sponsors are out, and with the state of the American economy, more are sure to follow.
So this is likely about money and sponsors — though I’m not sure how having the Korean players articulate themselves in English is going to change the LPGA Tour’s pathetic television ratings or get the tour more coverage on the nightly sportscast. It may help fill some Wednesday pro-ams, but with the damage being done on this issue, one has to wonder how many people will be lining up to play in them.
Note: This must be a hot topic as the National Post has added tomorrow’s column to their website tonight. Find it here.