LPGA Tour reverses course on 'English policy'

I posted this at Wizbang Sports earlier today and decided to cross post it here at the main blog also but at a slack time for blog posts. The following subject matter is one of the biggest sports controversies for 2008.

Let me note two things before getting to the topic-

1- This is my first time to write on this controversial subject. On August 13th I had heart valve surgery and only came home from the hospital on August 29th. In addition I have suffered from numbness in one hand since being operated on. While I started blogging again earlier this week, I didn’t comment on the LPGA policy. Complicated and long posts are difficult for me to do at this time.

2- My wife is Asian, Leonita born in the Philippines. I’ve lived in the Philippines, and have visited Japan, South Korea, Macau, China(Hong Kong) and Singapore at some time in my life. You may want to weigh this when considering what I write below.

The policy reversal comes after a week of heated criticism from the media, elected officials, and tournament sponsors. From LPGA.com

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.

After hearing the concerns, we believe there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every Tour player. In that spirit, we will continue communicating with our diverse Tour players to develop a better alternative. The LPGA will announce a revised approach, absent playing penalties, by the end of 2008.

The policy the LPGA is revising was broken by Golfweek a little over a week ago.

PORTLAND, Ore. – For the past several years, the LPGA has impressed upon its membership the importance of communicating effectively in English. As the game’s dominance shifts to the East, the LPGA has strengthened its stance. Learning English no longer is a tour suggestion; it’s a requirement.

At a mandatory South Korean player meeting Aug. 20 at the Safeway Classic, the tour informed its largest international contingent that beginning in 2009, all players who have been on tour for two years must pass an oral evaluation of their English skills. Failure would result in a suspended membership.

When I first read this, I was deeply troubled. Did the LPGA Tour realize the PR and legal nightmare they were possibly stepping into? The moment a player was suspended, a discrimination lawsuit was likely to follow. One that even if the tour won, would be financially costly in addition to be destructive on a public relations level. Asia based companies are sponsors of LPGA tournaments, plus the tour gets large broadcast fees from South Korea and Japan. The LPGA seemed to be self-inflicting a wound on itself.

Also when Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak joined the LPGA, her English skills were very poor and she was shy to do interviews. If such a policy was in state in 1998, would the tour have been graced by one of its greatest players ever?

Pak’s English has improved greatly. As could be seen after her 2006 LPGA Championship win. Pak remains shy to some extent, but not because she has trouble communicating in English.

There are non-golf gestures by Asian players that have been appreciated by the public. Like when Mi Hyun Kim donated $100,000 US dollars to Kansas tornado victims in 2007.

Ron Sirak at Golf World wrote that the final straw as to non-English speaking players came when Eun Hi Ji did her winner’s acceptance speech at Rochester in June only through a translator. How true this was is open to conjecture.

Ji explained herself and took some blame in this article

“At the time, I spoke Korean in the interview. I experienced pricks of conscience as I felt if the latest decision targets me. I’ll pay more attention to improving my English.”

There have been rumblings about the Asian players for some time. Dating back at least to Jan Stephenson’s magazine interview in 2003 where the Australian born golfer said Asians were ruining the US based tour. A golf writer Craig Dolch who I highly respect also seemed overwhelmed by the amount of Asian players qualifying for this year’s ADT Championship.(I’d supply a link, but Craig’s golf blog was taken down after he stopped working for the Palm Beach Post in August.) If the field was set today, over half the field will have been born in Asia(Mostly South Korea, but one player from Japan and Taiwan also) compared to only 4 native born Americans making the field. I haven’t scrutunized the list thoroughly, American born Jane Park and Brazilian born but naturalized US citizen Angela Park may be getting counted in these lists. Both players are of South Korean heritage.

Also note 2008 saw Asian born golfers win three of the LPGA’s four major championships. In fact all the majors were won by players whose first language isn’t English. Lorena Ochoa taking home the Nabisco in addition to Inbee Park winning at the US Open, Yani Tseng at the LPGA Championship, and Ji-Yai Shin at the British Open. This and the lack of success of US players has caused a lot of grumbling from the media and some fans.

Is it nationalism or thinly veiled racism? I’m both a fan of the LPGA, and been a credentialed member of the media who covers the tournaments. While doing the later, I’ve seen one or two members of the media mocking the English proficiency of some tour players. So honestly I think a little bit of racism is at play.

Back to the LPGA’s policy. As recently as Monday, LPGA Tour Commissioner Carolyn Bivens defended the new policy to both Golfweek and Golf World magazines. Saying players being fluent in English was needed as part of the Tour’s business model. Lisa Mickey explaining

Sponsors and pro-am participants pay money for personal encounters with professionals on the golf course. For sponsors, golf tournaments are an advertising tool and a corporate entertainment tool. The LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship, for example, is a well-established way for food and grocery vendors to network against the backdrop of a professional golf tournament alongside top women golf pros.

Plenty of corporate sponsors align themselves with the NBA and NFL, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will go one-on-one with Kobe or run downfield for a bomb from Brett Favre. Golf is unique and personal and when people are spending money in this environment, they do it for the chance to spend five or so hours on a golf course with a real playing professional. At the end of the day, if that pro hasn’t been able to utter a single “Nice shot,” then the odds are pretty high that the amateur spending substantial dollars won’t be back next year. Too much of that hurts the tournament. Enough of that hurts the tour.

The LPGA certainly has embraced its global membership and its global membership has made it a much more interesting tour, but while professional golf may be fun and games to the public, it is still, at the end of the day, a business. And, as mentioned before, this business depends solely on the personal satisfaction of check writers based on their experiences with the pros. If the pros can’t communicate, the experience is not a valid return on investment for those individuals sponsoring events and playing in pro-ams. Pro-ams and sponsorships secure tournament purses. Without the purses, there are no tournaments. And without tournaments, there are no tours.

While I don’t agree with some of what Ms. Mickey writes, I still recomend you read all of her column.

Pro-Am day is arguably my favorite day to attend a tournament when I’m not covering one. Players are more laid back, and the atmosphere is more fun than serious in nature.

Players communicating with their playing partners is important, no doubt about it. These people are paying money to spend time with LPGA pros. But is English proficiency needed for it? Helping an amateur golfer with their swing, putting stroke, or other golf course techniques whether done verbally in English or non-verbally in English but by other means of communication would seem equally valuable.

I attended the 2005 ADT Pro-Am where West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel played with South Korea’s Soo Young Kang. Kang’s English ability is fair at best, but her playing partners enjoyed playing with ‘The Fashion Model of the Fairways’. So much so, Frankel came back to watch Kang play on Saturday and Sunday.

After the new policy was reported in the news, criticism was fast in coming. The New York Times, golf writers, newspaper columnists of both the generic and golf variety chiming in saying this was a bad idea or saying the policy was clumsily announced or both. The list is long, and I will give a brief sampling.

The New York Times

Here is a thought-experiment for the executives at the Ladies Professional Golf Association. What would American sports look like if all the major sports associations required athletes prove that they are conversant in English? That is essentially what the L.P.G.A. has mandated with a new rule that will require all golfers who have been on tour for two years to pass a test of their spoken English, beginning in 2009.


Women have been fighting against discrimination in golf for decades, as Augusta National Golf Club — home of the Masters Tournament and still lacking a single female member — shamefully demonstrates. For the L.P.G.A. to impose discriminatory rules on its own members is not only offensive, it’s self-destructive.

The LPGA blogger known as Hound Dog said

My opinion? I am sad that America’s isolationist (or is it elitist?) tendencies have backed the LPGA into this corner. The Tour is stuck between its home society which insists that the other 90% of the world conform to its words and rules, and a remote one which delivers a large portion of its product and revenue. I am a little surprised that the Tour sided with the former in this case – what happened to “money talks”?

Randall Mell of the Sun-Sentinel wrote

LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens makes it harder on herself, I think.

Her heart is often in the right place, in being a champion for her players, in fighting hard to get them a better position in the sports marketplace and a more secure future, but her tactics so often confuse, baffle and stream roll.

For a former newspaper executive, she doesn’t really seem to understand the value of PR, or communicating her goals effectively.

There’s no massage in her messages, which hit us too often like blindside hammers. That’s been a staple in her three-year reign. We get focused on the wrong things when clumsiness overwhelms direction. We get caught up debating her tactics so much that we fail to see the good that’s intended.

This new mandate to force foreign players to speak proficient English or face suspension from the tour is another example. It promises to mostly affect Koreans, with 45 of them on the LPGA Tour.

Really, it’s a good idea that Koreans become proficient at English. It’s good for them and the tour.

I agree with Randall that the way the policy was made public was very badly handled. Ryan at GNN agrees. I think the threat of suspensions was discriminatory, but felt the Asian players do need to learn better English. A well thought out plan by the LPGA to facilitate this would have been far wiser, and would have avoided the PR nightmare of the last ten days.

Some people did defend the policy, and I feel none were being racist in doing so. Christine Brennan at USA Today, like Lisa Mickey, defending Carolyn Bivens and the policy-

Lawyers weighed in. PGA Tour players, who rarely if ever give the LPGA the time of day, added their two cents. It can safely be said that nearly everyone was aghast.

If only all those people had taken a moment to think — had stepped away from their shot, to use a golf analogy — they might have decided to go after this news with their pitching wedge rather than a sledgehammer.

If they had done that, it would have been noted that the LPGA and the PGA Tour have almost nothing in common, except for the word golf. While the PGA Tour is swimming in cash, most LPGA events live and die by selling the opportunity to play with the pros in weekly pro-ams. It’s an experience unique to golf, akin to an NBA star having to play a basketball game every week with sponsors in different cities or a major league baseball player having to spend hours helping the owner learn the basics of playing shortstop.

This is not an idle exercise for an LPGA player. She is expected to interact, offer advice and tell stories with her foursome, which is filled with sponsors or their customers paying anywhere from $4,000 to $12,000 per person for the experience. If those sponsors can’t converse with the player (65% of LPGA events are in the USA), the tournament often hears about it. And if the tournament doesn’t do something about it, the sponsor might decide not to come back next year, especially in these tough economic times.

Overall reaction was negative. Lawyers saying the policy was discriminatory and even some legislators in California voicing their objections. Truthfully I think politicians who worry about sports have better things to do with their time.

#1 Player in the world, Lorena Ochoa, called the policy ‘drastic’.

The LPGA probably rethought this policy after protests from two prominent tour sponsors became public. Michael Bush at Adage reporting

Saying it was “flabbergasted” by the Ladies Professional Golf Association’s new policy requiring “effective communication in English on the part of all of our Tour members,” State Farm is urging the group to reconsider — or the insurer may reconsider its sponsorship.
State Farm is both a general sponsor of the LPGA as well as the sponsor of the State Farm Classic Tournament.

“It’s something we are dumfounded by,” said Kip Diggs, media-relations specialist at the insurer, which is a general sponsor of the league as well as of the State Farm Classic Tournament in Springfield, Ill. “We don’t understand this and don’t know why they have done it, and we have strongly encouraged them to take another look at this.”


Mr. Diggs, however, said State Farm was unaware that the LPGA was contemplating any such policy. While he would not disclose the value of State Farm’s LPGA sponsorship, which runs through next year, he said the policy was something that the company would take into consideration when deciding whether to continue its relationship with the league when its contract expires.

What Mr. Diggs said contradicts the claims from LPGA headquarters that sponsors were consulted before the new policy was made. State Farm is one of the tour’s biggest sponsors.

State Farm isn’t the only sponsor taking note. David Peikin, senior director-corporate communications at Choice Hotels International, said, “We have a great deal of interest in the intentions of the LPGA on this subject. Based on our understanding, this policy is currently under review by the LPGA, and a final decision and any related details will be determined over the next four months. Until that time, we will be closely monitoring LPGA news and announcements.”

It comes as no surprise that the LPGA reversed itself only a short time after these protests were made. The Tour can’t afford to antagonize sponsors they have now when the tour is in danger of losing tournaments, or lost ones already.

Ron Sirak wrote today

Given that all the Europeans on tour speak English, as well as the handful of players from Latin America, the policy clearly was aimed at the Koreans. And to offend the Korean community was not only wrong, it was bad business. The tour’s single biggest revenue stream is Korean TV money. What is to be gained by offending that community?

The ultimate silliness about this entire situation is the small number of players it really affected. A well-placed source within the LPGA hierarchy said there were “perhaps a dozen” Korean players on tour who did not possess the English skills the LPGA desired. A caddie who works for a Korean player placed the number at “about five to seven.”

Then what the hell was this all about?

Lost in the entire issue has been one that strikes at the heart of the matter, and at the heart of women’s golf — if not at golf itself. The large contingent of Asian players — primarily Korean — on the LPGA Tour would be absorbed more easily if the Americans just played better. The language situation was not as much of an issue last year when Americans were winning.

In 2007, nine Americans won LPGA events, and, for the most part, they were the right nine: Morgan Pressel, Cristie Kerr, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis, Brittany Lincicome, Stacy Prammanasudh, Meaghan Francella, Nicole Castrale and Sherri Steinhauer.

This year, the only Americans to win are Creamer (twice) and Leta Lindley. The majors were won by Lorena Ochoa (Mexico), Yani Tseng (Taiwan), Inbee Park (Korea) and Ji-Yai Shin (Korea). Of those four, only Shin struggles with English. It is no coincidence, I’m guessing, that this policy was imposed in a down year for American players.

Ouch and I thought I was critical of LPGA HQ. Sirak concludes by saying- “This was a black eye that could have been avoided. The LPGA was hit by a sucker punch — and it was the sucker.”

We’ll have to wait some time before knowing if the wrong headed policy will cause damage to the LPGA Tour. What has happened in the last ten days reinforces what I been loudly saying for over two years. Commissioner Carolyn Bivens has to go before she ruins the LPGA Tour. That said, it is time to rest those three numb fingers of mine.

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