LPGA to require all players to speak English

The Canadian Press

8/26/2008 6:33:17 PM

Lorie Kane believes members of the LPGA Tour already have a universal language _ golf.

But the LPGA thinks differently. It will require golfers to speak English starting in 2009, with players who have been members for two years facing suspension if they can't pass an oral evaluation of English skills.

"I am of a strong belief that, yes, we need to learn to communicate," Kane, a 12-year tour veteran, told The Canadian Press on Tuesday. "But whether or not you can communicate shouldn't determine whether or not you have a card on the LPGA Tour."

The tour held a mandatory meeting with South Koreans at the Safeway Classic last Wednesday to inform them of the new policy, which will be finalized with a detailed criteria by season's end.

There are 121 international players from 26 countries on the LPGA Tour, including 45 players from South Korea. With such diversity, the tour sees the policy as a necessary step for its players.

"Why now? Athletes now have more responsibilities and we want to help their professional development," deputy commissioner Libba Galloway told The Associated Press. "There are more fans, more media and more sponsors. We want to help our athletes as best we can succeed off the golf course as well as on it."

The international players have had no shortage of success on the course.

Sixteen of the top-20 current money earners were born outside of the United States. Eight of those women are South Korean followed by two Swedes, two Australians, a Mexican, a Norwegian, a Brazilian and a Taiwanese.

There are plenty of different flags showing up on LPGA leaderboards these days.

"We are an international tour," said Kane. "The players that are playing the best are international players. And their play alone should help raise the level of the tour, which it is."

Instead of instituting a rule forcing golfers to pass an English test, Kane would prefer to see the tour do a better job of stressing the importance of communication to its foreign players. She believes that many of the South Koreans, in particular, know more English than they currently feel comfortable speaking in public and could be convinced to try harder.

It's an opinion she shares with good friend Se Ri Pak. Those two women had a conversation last week and agreed that some of the other South Korean players need to come out of their shell a bit more.

"There's a group of younger players who all they want to do is play golf," said Kane. "To show emotion and be engaging, they think it may affect their psyche. We know that that's just not the case.

"It can't be that way to continue to sell our product."

Selling the product _ even if it's a player simply promoting herself _ seems to be at the heart of this matter.

An example of a situation the LPGA hopes to avoid in the future occurred at the Canadian Women's Open in 2005. South Korea's Meena Lee won the event near Halifax and was unable to give media interviews or deliver an acceptance speech without the aid of a translator at that time.

"I think there was probably a bit of a lost opportunity for her as our champion to interact with the sponsors and fans," said tournament director Sean Van Kesteren. "You lose a little bit of the human element when you're using a translator."

Even still, he hasn't found language barriers to be much of a problem overall.

Van Kesteren has been in charge of the Canadian LPGA event since 2004 and has yet to field a complaint from a sponsor who was angry about drawing a pro-am partner that didn't speak English.

"We haven't had any real issues," he said. "There is a communication barrier with some players during the pro-am.

"But you also get some Korean players, for example, who do a great job even with the limited English that they may have. They're still entertaining, they still show everybody a good time."

Above all, he is fortunate to be in charge of one of the tour's top events.

The LPGA is struggling elsewhere. It announced earlier this month that the Ginn Tribute hosted by Annika Sorenstam would be dropped from the schedule starting next season because of sponsorship issues.

Players take notice of those kind of announcements.

"I'm concerned," said Kane. "The tournament owners are struggling to find new sponsors. We're struggling to find new tournaments."

Galloway denied that the move to force players to speak English was based on sponsors and said interest in the tour has never been stronger.

The mandatory English story was first reported by Golfweek magazine and drew an immediate and divided response from internet bloggers and posters.

Some accused the LPGA of outright racism while others saw it as a necessary move.

"You need to have players who can speak English and understand that this is entertainment _ otherwise the corporate revenue stream will evaporate," wrote one poster on the Globe and Mail's website. "The LPGA is just getting ready."

Countered another: "I don't understand why you'd want a tour that doesn't have all the best golfers regardless of the language they speak."

Kane and Pak first became friends before they could even have a proper conversation.

The Canadian has seen the LPGA change and evolve a fair bit since first playing events in 1996. The tour's schedule this year includes three tournaments in Mexico along with one each in Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Canada, France and England.

That lineup alone makes Kane wonder why English has been made mandatory.

"Right now we have an awful lot of tournaments internationally and a lot of them are in Asia," she said. "I don't speak any Asian languages. If we continue to play over there, are they going to require me to speak Korean?"

With files from The Associated Press