Forcing English on LPGA is un-American
Aug 28, 2008


Forcing English on LPGA is un-American

By Mark Kriegel
Mark Kriegel is the national columnist for He is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Namath: A Biography and Pistol: The Life of Pete Maravich, which Sports Illustrated called "the best sports biography of the year."

Updated: August 28, 2008, 11:39 AM EST

Beginning next year, the Ladies Professional Golf Association will test players for English proficiency. The un-proficient, no matter how low their handicaps, will face suspension.

Lawyers can debate whether the LPGA's edict is unconstitutional. But I know this much: It's un-American. It represents a potential assault on the idea of merit, and an insult, not just to golfers, but to all athletes. Eleven years after Tiger Woods won his first major, the golf establishment still reveals its exclusionary heart with alarming regularity. Somewhere, Hootie Johnson is beaming with pride.

Hilary Lunke, president of the LPGA's Player Executive Committee, told Golfweek that "entertaining" sponsors (read: American corporate sponsors) is "as big a part of the job as shooting under par."

"This is an American tour," Kate Peters, executive director of the State Farm Classic, told the magazine. "It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience."

If that's the case, then why don't we just dress them up in star-spangled bunny outfits?

As for that gem the American tour bit the fact is it's not so American, and hasn't been for a while. Almost a third 12 of LPGA's 37 tournaments are played outside the United States. Host countries include Mexico, Singapore, South Africa, France, Great Britain, Canada, China, Korea and Japan.

But a sport isn't defined by venues so much as talent. There are 120 golfers from 26 countries on the tour. Forty-five of them are Korean. And by my count, winners of the 25 LPGA events held so far this year include just three Americans. They are Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Leta Lindley, whose mother happens to be Vietnamese.

You get the feeling these numbers are what really offends the golf establishment. So what else is new? In 2003, former LPGA star Jan Stephenson told Golf magazine that "the Asians are killing our tour. Absolutely killing it. Their lack of emotion, their refusal to speak English when they can speak English. They rarely speak...

"We have to promote sex appeal..."

For the record, Stephenson is Australian, famous for her risque photo shoots. I happen to be very much in favor of risque photo shoots, but not at the expense of merit. Unlike politicians and actors (OK, what's the difference?) or gymnasts and offensive linemen, golfers should be easy to judge. A golfer's accomplishment is quantified. You are what the scorecard says you are. To be penalized for lack of fluency, or for lacking sufficient charm in the hospitality tent, or maybe even because you're not white enough, is an outrage. If merit isn't sacrosanct, you don't have a sport.

In any other league, this would be unimaginable. Would David Stern have suspended Yao Ming before he was ready to lose his translator? What would happen if Asian or Latin major leaguers suddenly found themselves subjected to an English proficiency exam (oral or written, it matters not)? Baseball would just as suddenly lose its anti-trust exemption, that's what.

It is said that golf is different. The sport's economy depends heavily on corporate sponsors and the players' abilities to schmooze those sponsors. Well, if that's the case, then the players have every incentive to learn English. But financial inducements are not to be considered an obligation. You don't legislate language.

Sports inevitably go through demographic changes. But the LPGA hasn't evolved with its players. What's stopping the tour from cultivating more Korean sponsors, like, say, Hyundai or Samsung? At this point, the LPGA has to be the only sporting entity not seeking a bigger share of the Asian market.

Instead you get the sports equivalent of the America First crowd, people like the lady from the State Farm event. An American tour, she sniffs.

"You've got to be kidding," said Grace Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition in Los Angeles. "How can this occur in this day and age? We're pretty outraged."

Grace Yoo is a lawyer by training. Her staff called the LPGA on Wednesday, requesting the exact language of the English proficiency requirement. The LPGA people had nothing to tell her people.

"I want to know the details," she said. "What's the correlation between English proficiency and success in sports?"

Of course, Yoo knows full well this has nothing to do with sport. This is about exclusion and commerce. That's why she's planning on contacting the LPGA's sponsors.

You wonder how charmed these corporations would be, being picketed by Koreans who speak fluent English.

"Money talks," she said.

Sure. It's the American way.