By Jason Lim
LPGA made a media splash of the worst kind when it announced it will require members to speak English starting in 2009. Those who have been members for two years will face suspension if they can't pass an oral evaluation of their English skills. The rules are effective immediately for new players.
Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner, defended the policy by saying, ``We live in a sports-entertainment environment. For an athlete to be successful in the sports entertainment market we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this."
Of course, this rule supposedly does not target the Korean players, who comprise 45 out of 121 international players, and have been dominating the leader board for the last few years. ``Absolutely not,'' Galloway said, ``this applies to all our membership.''
Then how come the LPGA officials called for a mandatory meeting during the Safeway Classic especially for the Korean players? If this rule applies to all players, why did they feel a need to hold a meeting exclusively just for Korean players? Shouldn't other international players be informed of this rule also?
This is nonsense. In the United States, someone not speaking or understanding English can vote this November for either Obama or McCain as the next president. But a professional women golfer can't play if she doesn't speak English?
This is offensive on so many dimensions.
First of all, it's offensive to all the athletes who sacrifice and work to achieve world-class level of accomplishment in one sport only to be suddenly told they need to be entertainers in order to continue to have the opportunity to compete at the highest level and earn a living while doing so.
Korean players are successful because they are good players. They are good players because they are focused on their game and work hard to hone their skills. And now they are being penalized for being too good. This goes against what America is all about: a sense of fair play. This rule is an obvious attempt at gaming the game so that fewer Korean players can compete. Or at least an attempt to distract them.
Second, this is offensive to all women. Apparently, unlike men players in PGA, women golfers can't just worry about keeping their drives straight and hitting the greens; they now have to worry about how well they schmooze with the pro-am, partners. Who thought that golfers had to be customer service representatives or entertainers? I thought that they were athletes. What's next, ``Wet T-shirt Golf?''
Isn't great golf and the drama of competition entertaining enough? Does the LPGA really think that people wouldn't watch LPGA tournaments unless they can hear the winner interview in English afterwards? This is golf, not an appearance on Oprah!
Third, this is a poor attempt by LPGA executives to hide bad management. In a Golf Digest article in February 2008, Ron Sirak writes, ``The LPGA has taken a perceived weakness ― the large number of foreign players, including the top five representing as many nations ― and made it a strength. Its largest revenue stream is money from Korean TV broadcast rights, followed by TV money from Japan."
Then what happened in a few months? Has this supposed international strength suddenly disappeared? Now LPGA suddenly can't get sponsors because of the poor English by its best international players?
Or, is this essentially a leadership problem at the very top? Is it that Carolyn Bivens, the LPGA commissioner who was appointed in September 2005, has alienated her important stakeholders and is driving the once-successful tour into the ground?
Bivens, who inherited a thriving and growing property, immediately sparked a very public fight with the Tournament Owners Association, an independent group of LPGA operators whose board boasts tournaments sponsored by McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Owens Corning, Krogers, Wegman's, Wendy's Michelob, Kraft Nabisco, Safeway, and others.
Also, in her first year alone, seven senior LPGA staff members, who had been largely responsible for the phenomenal growth of LPGA before Bivens came on board, left the organization. Among those who resigned included the chief strategic officer and senior vice president of golf.
Pick a fight with your major sponsors and fire those who know the business the best. It sure doesn't sound like a great management combination. In fact, in a July 28, 2006 letter from Jack Benjamin, the chairman of LPGA Tournament Owners Association, to Jay Coffin of Golfweek, he wrote, ``It (LPGA) only gets complicated when the business vision, the roadways to execute the vision and the measurements of success are absent or just not clear."
LPGA executives should just focus on running the organization well and be glad that they are blessed with the wealth of international talents that make their product the best in the world. And their product is women's golf, not ESL.
This English proficiency rule is at best a distraction and at worst an attempt to scapegoat a whole group for the bad decisions and poor stakeholder management by LPGA. It's cowardly and a masquerade of the worst kind.
Jason Lim is a 2007-2008 fellow at Harvard Korea Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.