Idiocy, in Any Language

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, August 27, 2008; 5:06 PM

The major governing bodies of golf are making a coordinated, concerted push to get their sport included on the roster of events for the 2016 Olympic Games. But at least two of the organizations involved -- the LPGA Tour and Augusta National Golf Club -- can't possibly be helping the cause with policies that seem diametrically opposed to everything the Olympic movement allegedly stands for.

This week, the LPGA has been making headlines for a new rule that will require all its players to be able to speak passable English within two years of becoming members, or else face a possible suspension from the tour. Last week, the LPGA held a mandatory meeting with the tour's 45 South Korean players before the Safeway Classic to explain the new policy, as first reported by Golfweek Magazine on its website this past Monday.

Asked about the rationale for the new dictum, Libba Galloway, deputy commissioner of the LPGA, told the N.Y. Times that "being a U.S. based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English.

"We live in a sports entertainment environment. For an athlete to be successful today in the sports entertainment world 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, in recent years, the LPGA has taken a far different approach, constantly emphasizing that it had become a true world tour, popular all over the planet. This year, there were 121 international players from 26 countries playing in LPGA events, including those 45 South Koreans, 11 of them now ranked among the top 30 money winners. While the vast majority of tournaments are staged in the U.S., the tour also plays events in Canada, Singapore, Mexico, France, England, South Korea and Japan.

The increase in the number of South Koreans on tour over the last decade quite properly has been of some concern to LPGA officials, worried about a possible backlash from American galleries and viewers, television networks and corporate sponsors.

But at the same time, a number of young, telegenic American stars also emerged, players like Paula Creamer, Brittany Lincicome and Christie Kerr, among many others. And with 18-year-old Michelle Wie, a Stanford-educated Korean-American superstar soon to join the tour, women's professional golf surely seems very much on the rise, in the U.S. and around the world, even if some of its international players are English-challenged.

The new language requirement really does seems so unnecessary, and clearly has been aimed at a South Korean contingent that is likely to keep growing, what with another 40 players competing this year on the developmental Duramed Futures tour.

But the LPGA already seemed ahead of the curve in coping with many of its language barriers. Two years ago, they initiated several innovative programs to help the Koreans and any other international players learn the language. A number of women already were taking advantage of free Rosetta Stone computer programs and other LPGA-sponsored classes and tutoring to become more proficient in speaking the language. Galloway herself told The Times that "the vast majority" of its 120 international players spoke enough English to get by.

So why add this Draconian, xenophobic and seemingly discriminatory rule into the mix now, particularly in a sport that forever has only cared about the language of birdies, bogeys and other adventures, where numbers, not words, have been all that ever mattered.

Women's golf now also has the distinction of being the first professional sport to institute such a policy. You think the NBA would ever tell Yao Ming "learn English or go back to Beijing." Or Major League Baseball would insist that all those Japanese, Korean and Hispanic superstars speak the language or take their .320 batting averages and 2.76 ERAs back where they came from?

As a journalist representing an American newspaper, of course I would prefer to have tournament winners do post-match press conferences in proper English. But I also remember a then unknown Se Ri Pak winning the LPGA Championship back in 1997 and charming us all with her broken English -- "I so happy, happy," she kept saying -- and megawatt smile and bubbly personality that easily translated into a fabulous story.

Pak went on to make the U.S. her home base, and over the years eventually learned the language on her own. Most of the South Koreans now on the LPGA Tour almost certainly would do the same in the long run, as well, just as matter of practicality in learning to cope with every-day life on the road in America.

And ask yourself this question. What if the tables were turned and you were sent to a foreign country to conduct your own business, only to be told that unless you learned Korean, or Japanese or Spanish you'd be out of a job? Could you do it in two years, while also putting in 50-hour or longer work weeks? Five years? Ever?

There is more than a little irony here as well. Women golfers around the globe, and particularly in the U.S., have been discriminated against for years. They've been unable to join certain clubs as full members, prohibited from teeing off on weekends until 1 p.m., told that the men's grill was truly boys only and totally off limits and totally excluded from any membership at all in places like Augusta National, Pine Valley and Burning Tree.

And now one of the most powerful women's sports organizations in the world is actually going to discriminate against some of its very own international female members because they're not proficient in English? It's absurd, it's dead wrong and clearly contrary to the Olympic ideal that rewards only the fastest and the strongest, not the athlete who gives the best press conference for the American media.

And speaking of discrimination, why would the Olympic Lords of the Rings look kindly on golf's latest effort to get on the Olympic program when Augusta National is prominently listed as one of the organizations spearheading the move, right there alongside the LPGA Tour, the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, the European Tour, the Royal & Ancient and the U.S. Golf Association.

Isn't that the same Augusta National that still does not allow women -- as in half the world's population -- to join their exclusive club? If I'm an IOC member -- and some of them are female members -- having Augusta National on golf's side, coupled with the LPGA's new and thoroughly misguided policy, would provide every reason to vote no in any language on the sport's inclusion in the 2016 Games.

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Len.Shapiro@washingtonpost.com.


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