LPGA: English Only Please!

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.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • It must be a bigger issue for the Lpga(and for sponsors and ratings) when hall of famer and number 2 on the money list Sorenstam is planning to retire. Also, when I go down the money list I only recognize 13 out of the top 30, granted I am not an avid viewer of the Lpga – but I am an avid golf fan. I think the bottom line with golf ratings in general is without Tiger in the field ratings struggle.

    By the way, are they going to test the women and at what level do they have to speak English at?

    Byron, Ontario

  • I agree it’s not racist, but I think it’s closer than most would think. It smacks of “redneckism”, that “USA love it or leave it” feeling that is very difficult to fight against especially for those of non-American descent. If Bivens really thinks this is a viable way to stop the bleeding of sponsors, in this current economic downturn, she should have her head checked.

    Unfortunately her view is not going to raise the ire of the public enough. But really it’s because no one cares about the LPGA, and not because the idea as a whole is borderline reprehensible.

  • If the PGA tour were also to adopt this rule they would likely lose Boo as I doubt he would pass any English proficiency test.

  • Entertainment Reporter here:

    You think I didn’t look up the driving stats for the LPGA Tour? Aside from Se Ri Pak, there are no Koreans anywhere near the top of the driving distance statistics.

    As for a “power game,” that’s relative, now isn’t it? Clearly you’ve never stood next to Brittany when she bombs one out there — but if the leader on tour averages 265 (which I’m sure is 50 yards past your best, my dear critic) — than that is what constitutes a power game within women’s golf. And within that context, there are no South Korean rivals.

    They are great plaeyrs — they just play a different game.

  • Lots of debate over on Geoff Shackleford’s site, too.

    I don’t think it’s racist so much as a horribly misguided business step. The LPGA is saying, in essence, that they’d rather have weaker players speaking English than better players speaking Korean. It’s a step toward irrelevancy – like a newspaper that starts watering down its content to suit the advertisers. The readers start leaving and then the advertisers vanish anyway.

    Many valuable people struggle in other languages, no matter how much they try. But incentives always help – instead of creating penalties, the tour should create rewards. Make language skills pay off enough, and the English will improve soon enough.

  • It’s not racist and not even that misguided, though certainly it’sbeen interpreted that way by a public and media that knows very little about LPGA golf.

    Bivens recognizes the core truth the LPGA’s players are its best marketing tool. Anyone who’s actually been to an LPGA event (where were you in Ottawa, Robert?) and has iwtness how the players interact with the fans, volunteers, pro-am participants, sponsors, etc. knows this is true, particularly when compared with their counterparts on the PGA Tour.

    So, it seems what Bivens is trying to do is ensure that all players are able to interact with those key groups. Doesn’t seem like a bad business idea at all.

    My understanding is that the LPGA is providing language training and other assistance to acheive this goal, which will help the players out in all aspects of their professional lives, not just while at a tournament. Players aren’t getting kicked off the tour for not meeting the standard, though apparently may be suspeneded if they can’t meet minimal requirements.

    And the requirements do sound minimal – give a thank ou speech and conduct a basic interview without an interpreter. No one expects perfection, just basic communication skills.

    Speaking of communication, that’s where Bivens seems to have – again – failed dramatically. Players don’t seem sure of the details, media is in the dark … seems to be a recurring issue for her.

  • RT….

    I am not sure you are correct in your anlysis. A review of the top 10 drivers on the LPGA shows 1 Mexican, 2 Swedes, 2 South Koreans, 2 Americans, 1 Nowegian, 1 from Taiwan, and 1 Australian. I agree with your critic on this one, that no country really can claim the power game here. Just my thoughts….fascinating debate, however.

  • Golfgirl
    Right on!!
    The players on the LPGA Tour are the focus and if they can’t give interviews/acceptance speeches they should be mandated to. Thes players owe it to the sponsors and fans who are making their lives pretty good.
    I think this whole thing has been taken out of context by those who just wait to stir the pot.

  • I think Mr. Thompson and Golfgirl are correct with this. It’s unfortunate that people take everything to such an extreme to make their point. I haven’t read or heard anything that indicates racism. All Bivens is saying is that playing on the LPGA Tour is a wonderful privilege and the players should be able to communicate with the people who are essentially their employers. Sounds reasonable.

  • I didn’t say any one country could claim to have the longest hitters — but extend that out to the Top 20 and you’ll only find two South Koreans. And there are 45 of them on tour — I’m sure their percentage within that ranking doesn’t match their percentage of players on the overall tour.

    My point that they are exacting players is supported by the number of South Koreans on the driving accuracy stats:

    I count 7 of the top 20.

  • I thnk Ms Biven have gone to far… is not fair to these Korean girls or any other girls that can,t speak English. When you go to defferent countries, they don,t expect you to speak their languae. She should reconsider…

  • And with todays decision to back off the bad idea Bivens is admitting it was a mistake to begin with. Proving she, and everyone else here who supported the idea, was wrong.

    Refreshing to know that some can admit they made a mistake and make it right.

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