• GOLFWEEK EXCLUSIVE • DISCUSS •
By BETH ANN BALDRY
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.
“Hopefully what we’re talking about is something that will not happen,” said Libba Galloway, the tour’s deputy commissioner, of possible suspensions. “If it does, we wouldn’t just say, ‘Come back next year.’ What we would do is work with them on where they fell short, provide them the resources they need, the tutoring . . . and when we feel like they need to be evaluated again, we would evaluate.”
Galloway said the policy takes effect immediately, but the “measurement time will be at the end of 2009.” There are 121 international players from 26 countries on tour; 45 are South Koreans.
Hilary Lunke, president of the Player Executive Committee, said much of this initiative stems from the importance of being able to entertain pro-am partners. Players already are fined if the LPGA receives complaints from their pro-am partners. Now the tour is taking it one step further.
“The bottom line is, we don’t have a job if we don’t entertain,” Lunke said. “In my mind, that’s as big a part of the job as shooting under par.”
Korean players were informed of the rule Aug. 20 by LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens yet not given any written explanation. The tour told its membership several years ago to expect an English evaluation but didn’t stipulate any penalties.
Every Korean player who spoke with Golfweek here was under the impression she would lose her tour card if she failed the test rather than face suspension.
The tour aims to issue a statement to its membership by the end of the season. Players who obtain tour status at Q-School this winter will have two years to meet the English requirements.
Se Ri Pak was one of many Koreans who supported the tour’s position but favored a fine. The LPGA’s Galloway, however, said an impression must be made that communicating effectively in English is fundamental to the tour’s business.
“We agree we should speak some English,” Pak said. “We play so good overall. When you win, you should give your speech in English. . . . Mostly what comes out is nerves. Totally different language in front of camera. You’re excited and not thinking in English.”
Angela Park, a trilingual second-year player, knows that it’s difficult to “come to a foreign country and be yourself.” The Brazilian-born Korean-American said the rule is fair and will be good for the tour and its players.
“The LPGA could come out and say they only want 10 Koreans, but they’re not,” Park said. “A lot of Korean players think they are being targeted, but it’s just because there are so many of them.”
Seon-Hwa Lee, a two-time winner in 2008, thinks everyone “can do a simple interview.” She works with an English tutor in the winter and plans to brush up for the evaluation. Her ability to answer questions without the help of a translator has improved immensely during her short time on tour.
“The economy is bad, and we are losing sponsors,” she said. “Everybody understands.”
Kate Peters, executive director of the LPGA State Farm Classic, supported the news. “This is an American tour. It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience.”
The tour will rely on its communication staff to help identify players who need to be evaluated. International players who already demonstrate English proficiency will not be approached.
Betsy Clark, LPGA vice president of professional development, said the players will be evaluated by a core team on communication skills such as conversation, survival (i.e. “I’m going to the store.”) and “golfspeak.” Players must be able to conduct interviews and give acceptance speeches without the help of a translator.
LPGA members are encouraged to use the support systems already in place such as the Kolon-LPGA Cross-Cultural Professional Development Program and the Rosetta Stone online language program. In addition to helping players grasp the language, the Kolon program also helps bridge cultural differences and focuses on the LPGA’s Five Points of Celebrity: Appearance, Relevance, Approachability, Joy/Passion and Performance.
While the tour hasn’t informed its entire membership of the penalties involved with failing the English evaluation, officials have been in talks with Duramed Futures Tour players, college coaches and junior programs about the importance of communication.
“This should be a priority in their professional development just the way working on their short game is a priority,” Galloway said. “We just wanted to be clear about our expectations.”
Jeong Jang, one of the most engaging Koreans on tour, walked away from the Safeway meeting onboard with the tour.
She used to think it was necessary to speak perfect English when facing the media and was overcome with nerves. Now she realizes that’s not what sponsors, fans, or even the LPGA expects from her.
“We are fine,” Jang said. “We just need to get confidence in the camera. . . . When Cristie Kerr won (in 2005) at Michelob (Ultra Open), first thing she said to the camera was, ‘I need a beer.’
“I still remember that. Sponsors must be proud.”
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Beth Ann Baldry is a Golfweek senior writer. To reach her e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Adam Schupak contributed.