Libba Galloway knows it is not easy. She spent four semesters studying another language at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and the lasting memory of her effort is the voice of the professor who told her she “spoke French like a Spanish cow.”
Almost all of what she learned is gone, three decades later, but the challenges of multi-lingual communication have never been greater. As deputy commissioner of the Ladies Professional Golf Association, Galloway is near the centre of an international debate, a proponent of a new policy requiring golfers to learn English, or face suspension.
“I learned to say ‘Thank you,’ I learned to say ‘It’s nice to meet you,'” she said. “I learned the basics even though I wasn’t fluent. And we are not looking for perfection. We’re not looking for fluency in a language, we’re just looking for basic communication skills that will help our players interact with Pro-Am partners, with the media and with the acceptance speeches.”
What the LPGA was looking for and what it has found could be separated by an ocean, with word of its policy triggering waves of scorn from agents, legislators, players and scholars who claim it unjustly targets a growing list of South Korean stars.
And the resulting roar – “The LPGA No Habla Intelligente” was the headline on one blog entry – has largely drowned out the voices of supporters who have advocated the need for improved language skills.
The advocates argue players should be able to interact with tournament officials, with volunteers and, most important, with the corporate heavy-hitters who decide where to spend the sponsorship dollars that help sustain professional golf.
Their movement appears to be directed at golfers from South Korea, who have, over the last decade, rocketed to prominence on the tour. The Asian nation has placed 45 players in the LPGA, making it by far the largest international contingent on tour, and making it the subject of its own mandatory meeting last week.
It was then that officials informed the Korean delegation that beginning next year, players would be tested on their English skills. Failing the oral exam would result in a suspension, but according to Golfweek magazine, the players in attendance were left with the feeling they would lose their tour card.
“Some of the players understand where the LPGA is coming from, because, as an organization, they’re going to have to have marketing assets,” said Don Shin, an agent with Global Sports Management. “But as far as having a penalty – being suspended from the tour – it is a little harsh for them, they feel.”
Shin’s company represents a number of Korean golfers, including Meena Lee, who won the Canadian Women’s Open three years ago in Halifax. His clients studied English in middle school and high school, they have worked with tutors, they have spent their off-seasons working on grammar and they have practised being interviewed.
“It is a challenge,” Shin said. “My personal opinion is, if you go to Korea and play golf for two years, would the Korean people expect them to speak Korean after two years? You know, if you switch the people around, what are they expecting? Isn’t that too much?”
And the languages do not share many similarities.
“I’ve heard lots of different lists of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, and Korean is always at the top of those lists, along with Japanese and Arabic,” said John Duncan, director of the Center for Korean Studies at UCLA. “And it’s just as difficult for them to learn English as it is for us to learn Korean.”
The influx of Korean players has often been traced back to the emergence of Se Ri Pak, who has won more than US$10-million in prize money. She won a major tournament in her rookie year, 1998, and has won more than 20 tournaments since.
“It used to be that if you were good at sports, it was a bad sign; it meant you were not good at studies,” UCLA professor Kye-young Park told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Parents would often discourage their kids from playing sports … now, Korean parents see sports as a way to become Americanized and get ahead.”
Critically, perhaps, Pak told Golfweek she believed in the need to improve language skills.
At the Wegmans LPGA, a tournament held just outside Rochester, N.Y., volunteers have opened their homes to house players during the event. Tournament director Linda Hampton said it has become harder to find people willing to accommodate players from South Korea, because the language barrier is too broad to overcome.
“They’re offering them a place in their house, to come and spend the night, or food and housing for the week,” Hampton said. “And when there’s no dialogue because the player can’t [communicate], we’re finding that housing is difficult to find for Asian players because they’ve had bad experiences.”
The week of a golf tournament is about more than the golf, she said. Players need to mingle with the volunteers and the corporate sponsors, especially at gatherings where attendance is mandatory.
“Coming out and just standing at a party is a little awkward,” Hampton said, adding the problem is not as widespread as it was once.
By mandating English proficiency, and by implementing a deadline and what can be argued as being a harsh punishment, the LPGA has left itself open to attack.
“With the success of Tiger Woods, so many children of colour have been inspired to take on the sport of golf, believing they had an equal opportunity to play,” California legislator Mary Hayashi told The Sacramento Bee. “The LPGA is potentially reversing hard-won progress, especially for women, by showing that talent, passion, and hard work is not enough.”
She told the paper she would consider presenting a bill to counter the LPGA policy, if necessary. There have also been reports of agents and lawyers considering the possibility of legal action, should a player actually be suspended for failing an oral exam.
“This certainly does not target the South Korean players,” Galloway said. “We have reached out to other players as well, non-South Koreans whom we believe need improvement in their English language skills, and we’ve had communications with them … it certainly is not a racist issue.”
She said the LPGA has interpreters at some tournaments, and has offered language lessons to its members through an online tutorial.
“We don’t believe that is too much to ask of our players,” she said. “And the fact that, without having this requirement in place, the vast majority have gotten there already, we just really don’t see this as being an issue and too harsh of a requirement.”