September 09, 2008

Language Lesson

By Ron Sirak Illustrations by Getty Images
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Some wounds heal more slowly than others, and those that linger the longest are often emotional insults that mar the memory rather than physical bruises. While the LPGA rescinded its threat of suspension last Friday for players not proficient in English, what remains to be seen is whether more needs to be done to make amends with an angered Asian constituency that extends far beyond the players.

The outrage since the LPGA revealed its plan for the English-proficiency requirement (A Failure To Communicate, Sept. 5) clearly was not what the tour expected, which raises the question: Why not? In rapid succession, a major sponsor (State Farm), the LPGA's No. 1 player (Lorena Ochoa), an influential newspaper (The New York Times) and a California lawmaker (Leland Yee) opposed the plan to require players to speak English at an acceptable level after two years on tour.

The tour's first response was to defend the rule, saying it helped business to require players give victory speeches, conduct media interviews and interact with pro-am partners in English. When that didn't work, it issued this clarification early last week:

"We are not suggesting, nor will we implement, an 'English-only' policy. The LPGA does not, nor will we ever, require English fluency, or even proficiency, from our international players." That only muddied the waters more. What, exactly, was the tour asking of the international players?

Three days later, on Sept. 5, the LPGA issued this statement: "The LPGA has received valuable feedback from a variety of constituents regarding the recently announced penalties attached to our effective communications policy. We have decided to rescind those penalty provisions."

The problem here is that the "valuable feedback" needed to be solicited before the policy was revealed by commissioner Carolyn Bivens at a meeting with South Korean players late last month.

Players' feelings are the least of the tour's problems. Fathers are angrier than their daughters at a perceived cultural insult, and the jury is still out on the mood of Korean companies who pour millions into the LPGA and have great national pride. The issue also may impact next year's vote on whether to add golf to the 2016 Olympics. It's the kind of insult the IOC remembers, such as when the Atlanta games proposed Augusta National as the golf venue.

There is no question language at times creates problems for the LPGA. But this matter could have been handled on an individual basis. By all accounts, at most a dozen players, mostly Korean, can't converse to some extent in English. The LPGA's total purse was $33.1 million in 1998, Se Ri Pak's rookie year. Now it is more than $54 million, a 66 percent increase. Yes, international players benefit financially from playing the LPGA, but also undeniable is the fact the tour's globalization—especially the money from Korea, which has 45 LPGA players—has significantly fueled its financial growth.

Growth generates challenges, and the biggest for the LPGA is to build a coalition in which 121 players from 26 nations outside the United States feel wanted and, most importantly, respected. While the LPGA is an American-based tour, it represents a global community. Foreign money has played a major role in the LPGA's growth, and part of the price is cultural respect. That's the lesson here.