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Thomas Bonk ON GOLF

Words speak louder than actions for LPGA

August 28, 2008|Thomas Bonk

After he shot a 68 in the first round of the 1990 British Open at St. Andrews, the player and an interpreter showed up in the interview room at the Old Course to talk to the assembled media.

The player was Christy O'Connor Jr. He was Irish. He spoke English. But he also spoke with a brogue thicker than a fog bank and that's why the interpreter came along.

Language skills of pro golfers have long been a topic of conversation. Who can forget Roberto de Vicenzo uttering the anguished words "What a stupid I am" after goofing up his scorecard to lose the 1968 Masters?

Not exactly a sentence that follows the normal diagram, but still plaintive and elegant, and also completely understandable.

The issue of how pro golfers speak English, or if they speak it at all, broke some new ground this week when the LPGA Tour warned its members that they need to be proficient in English by the end of 2009 or face suspension.

How well this policy, which was formulated by the leaders of the top women's pro golf tour, will actually pan out, is open to interpretation.

There is some background to the LPGA's stance on having all of its members conversant in English. There are 121 international players from 26 countries on the LPGA Tour; 45 of them are from South Korea. And international players have dominated women's professional golf.

In fact, 27 of the last 32 women's majors have been won by players who were born outside the U.S.

The trend continued this year. Lorena Ochoa of Mexico won the Kraft Nabisco, Yani Tseng of Taiwan won the LPGA Championship, Inbee Park of South Korea won the U.S. Women's Open and Ji-Yai Shin of South Korea won the Women's British Open.

While the LPGA Tour's deputy commissioner, Libby Galloway, said the vast majority of the international players speak English well enough to pass any proficiency exam, there is a clear perception that the policy is intended at players of Korean descent.

That's one troubling part of the policy, that it could be seen as picking on one particular group.

How this message on speaking English was delivered didn't help appearances -- at a mandatory meeting of South Korean players at an LPGA event in Portland, Ore., last week.

And so some lawyers and agents are upset, claiming the policy is discriminatory and possibly illegal. The players will probably be fine, when all is said and done.

Lorie Kane, a Canadian, said the penalty is too harsh and said when she plays tournaments in Japan, she doesn't speak Japanese. But Se Ri Pak, who is from South Korea, said she supports the tour's position.

It is possible that the biggest problem here is that something is lost in translation.

The LPGA wants to expand its place in the worldwide market and help ensure its economic relevancy. That means it would help if its players spoke enough English to satisfy the tour's corporate clients who play in pro-ams and put up prize money, as well as please its core of English-speaking fans.

Finding fault with such a standpoint is difficult.

It's just the message is probably what pushed the buttons to make this hot topic issue. There are other issues for the LPGA Tour to solve that appear equally daunting, such as having as many as six tournaments that may be without title sponsors.

Starting in 2009, all LPGA Tour players who have been active for two years have to pass an oral evaluation of their English, and if they fail, they'll be suspended. Galloway has explained that the tour would work with any player who flunks English.

There is a better solution. Instead of suspending anyone, taking away their livelihood and risk coming off as even slightly xenophobic, work with the players now. Launch language classes, hire tutors, encourage media training. The LPGA already has some programs in place, so no threats about future penalties are necessary.

It's just good public relations.

Don't suspend, and then offer assistance -- you do it the other way around.

Can you imagine the PGA Tour taking the cards away from K.J. Choi or Eduardo Romero or Angel Cabrera?

The LPGA Tour is on track to make public its specific guidelines, probably by the end of the year.

Hopefully, it will be clearly spelled out, in plain English.

--

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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