Putting English on the ball

Times Staff Writers

Responding to protests, the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. announced Friday that it would back down on suspending golfers who do not speak adequate English, reversing a controversial decision that had thrown the organization smack into the nation’s long-running culture wars.

The LPGA Tour had announced last month that it would suspend golfers who could not speak English in media interviews, acceptance speeches and tournaments by 2009, saying that language fluency was critical to the sport’s promotion and marketing efforts.

The action occurred as foreigners have increasingly come to dominate women’s golf, with 121 players from 26 countries outside the U.S. -- including the LPGA’s top-ranked player, a Mexico native, and three of the last four winners of women’s majors, who are from Asia. The largest foreign contingent is from South Korea, with 45 players.

But what began as an internal marketing move quickly devolved into a raucous debate over culture, ethnicity and language. Partisans on both sides weighed in, with some saying the golf brouhaha underscored how foreigners refusing to learn English are endangering the nation’s core traditions, a charge commonly made against Spanish-speaking Latinos. Others accused golf officials of using English to keep out foreigners, particularly Koreans.

After a bombardment of public protest, LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens said Friday that the group would issue a revised policy by year’s end that would not include suspensions.


The action came after some of the tour’s own corporate sponsors, such as State Farm, asked the organization to review its policy.

“We have decided to rescind those penalty provisions,” Bivens said in a statement. “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.”

But some said the LPGA’s policy made good business sense.

“At the core of this thing is a professional sports organization that’s trying to protect cash flow,” said David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “And the best way to do that is connect with customers, whether those are golf fans or corporate sponsors. If someone asks a question in English but you can only respond in Spanish or Korean, you’ve got to believe that limits your ability to connect with the fan base.”

This issue is accentuated in golf because players aren’t members of a team; they’re independent contractors who represent themselves, he said. State Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) urged the LPGA to change that business model. To require players to schmooze with corporate sponsors and value that over their ability to play golf is “very demeaning to the sport,” he said.

At a Los Angeles news conference Friday, before dozens of clicking cameras from Korean, Spanish and English-language media, Lieu and other officials signed a letter of protest to the LPGA demanding an apology and calling on the organization to diversify its leadership and board of directors. The letter-signing was organized by Lieu, chairman of the California Legislature’s Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus.

The signers also included African American and Latino supporters, such as Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, state Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sherly Chavarria of the Central American Resource Center.

Despite the policy shift, the LPGA’s actions were denounced at the news conference by a multiethnic coalition of elected officials and community activists. They said that singling people out for punishment based on language fluency was biased and possibly illegal.

Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, said the LPGA’s initial rule marked the latest act in a long history of targeting immigrants with language discrimination, including efforts to push English-only policies in Monterey Park or restrict bilingual education and other services. He said his group would support “reasonable policies” to help foreign golfers learn English but that penalizing those who did not was “unjustified, unfair and, simply put, mean-spirited.”

Grace E. Yoo, executive director of the Korean American Coalition, said many Koreans believed they were particularly targeted by the ruling because the LPGA took aside only Korean players in a mandatory meeting to discuss the policy. The LPGA says, however, that the policy was evenly applied and that the association has sponsored a program to immerse international players in American customs, culture and language.

At the Aroma Wilshire driving range in Koreatown, Korean golfers themselves expressed both opposition to and support for the LPGA policy. Koreans have particularly flocked to golf in the last decade, drawn by excitement over Se Ri Pak, the 30-year-old South Korea native who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year as the youngest living entrant.

Pia Kim, 49, of Hancock Park said many Korean parents around her invest everything in their children’s future in golf, and she thought it would be unfair for skilled golfers to be disadvantaged because of their language skills.

“To make it a rule and suspend people seems like the arrogance of a powerful nation,” said Kim, who has been playing golf about four years.

But Jintaek Lim, who teaches golf at the center, said he thought English requirements would help motivate South Korean golfers to become more well-rounded. He said he often sees Koreans playing golf with hardly a word throughout the game, not socializing with other players or getting to know American culture.

“It does upset me to think South Korean players may be hurt by this, but when in Rome, you need to follow Roman law,” said Lim, 35, who has been a golf instructor for eight years. Others said the LPGA’s policy made good business sense.

The LPGA’s top-ranked golfer, Lorena Ochoa, called the decision to require English “a little bit drastic.” Ochoa, who grew up in Guadalajara and learned English primarily when she attended the University of Arizona, said the Koreans who have increasingly entered the sport were trying hard to learn English.

“As long as they try and they make an effort . . . it’s OK,” Ochoa said. “I could never learn Korean to go to play in Korea. . . . We are here because of what we do and because of our talent. Not because of the language we speak.”

Despite the LPGA’s reversal, some Koreans expressed continuing concern. One of them was Hanbyul Lee, 18, who said she had been practicing daily since the fifth grade, dreaming of competing in the LPGA Tour.

“I don’t think it makes sense,” she said in Korean of the LPGA’s policy as she finished up a six-hour practice session at the Aroma Wilshire Center. “The American tournaments are international competitions. For most golfers, the U.S. is the ultimate goal.”

Lee, who arrived in Los Angeles from Bucheon, South Korea, last week to compete in the association’s qualifying matches this month, said that even after years of studying English in Korea, she found it nearly impossible to understand the language colloquially because of the pronunciation.

Since the LPGA announcement, she said, her parents have been anxiously calling her from South Korea, urging her to work on her English. But the high school senior said she doesn’t know when she’ll have the time -- she usually collapses into bed as soon as she gets home from long days of schoolwork and practices.

“I thought as long as my golf is good, I’d be able to use interpreters,” she said. “We’re here for the golf, but now we also have to worry about learning English.”


Times staff writers Alana Semuels in Los Angeles and Kevin Baxter in Guadalajara contributed to this report.