LPGA's Korean players make statement with their golf and their English
NAPLES, Fla. -- This kind of conversation was rare five years ago on the LPGA Tour. For starters, it involved Vin Scully.
So Yeon Ryu was chatting on the putting green when the topic of her name came up. The LPGA makes sure everyone pronounces it correctly as ''Yoo.'' So why is it that Scully referred to rookie left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu as ''REE-yoo?''
''Oh, the Dodgers' pitcher? He's a really good guy,'' she said. ''Maybe that can be a nickname for him.''
''No,'' she replied with a laugh. ''Ryu is a pretty common name in Korea. But we're good friends.''
So you're a baseball fan?
''Oh, yeah. I love the Dodgers,'' she said.
Na Yeon Choi, a U.S. Women's Open champion who describes herself as shy, can't stop talking -- in English, of course -- about how far she has come in six years on the LPGA. She recalls her rookie season when she could speak only enough English ''to order McDonald's.''
''When I traveled with my parents, we couldn't go to any restaurants by ourselves. We had to go with somebody,'' she said. ''There are so many questions. One day we went to American restaurant and just pointed at the food. Even then they were like, `You want appetizer first, or soup?' It was a very hard time.''
Choi spent a year traveling with Greg Morrison, a Canadian tutor living in Seoul, practicing English an hour a day without fail. She is comfortable enough now that she made a studio appearance last year on Golf Channel's ''Morning Drive.'' And when her parents are in town?
''I can go wherever I want,'' she said with a smile.
Any more, it's hard to find a South Korean who doesn't speak English with great proficiency - in pro-ams, in interviews, speeches, even with other players. That so-called problem of the LPGA Tour being taken over by South Koreans sure doesn't seem like one anymore.
''In sports, your reputation today is a three- to five-year lag of what was reality back then,'' Commissioner Mike Whan said. ''I think that's our case. I hear it all the time. `Nobody speaks the language. They don't talk to anybody. They keep their head down.' That's 100 percent not true. I hope our reputation in three years is our reputation from today. Because our reputation today is pretty damn good.''
In 2008, Whan's predecessor Carolyn Bivens had to rescind a proposal to suspend players who couldn't speak English well enough to be understood at pro-ams, interviews or in making acceptance speeches after that policy was criticized as discriminatory, particularly against Asian players.
Whan said he couldn't walk onto the practice range without seeing half-dozen translators when he started in 2010. Now that's rare.
Se Ri Pak, the pioneer of women's golf in South Korea, tried to speak English from her rookie season (''crowd make big loud'') and eventually was good enough. As more South Koreans began to arrive on tour, Pak urged them to learn English for their own sake. The more comfortable they were in a new culture, the better they would perform. For years, though, translators became a crutch.
''Everybody is trying so hard to speak English better,'' Inbee Park said. ''They know that's the problem we've had out there. Getting used to the tour, the language has been the most important thing. This younger generation of Korean girls is trying to learn English before coming here.''
Park moved to America in the sixth grade, first to Florida and then to Las Vegas. Even so, it hasn't always been easy. She faced enormous scrutiny this year after winning three straight majors, and while Park handled every interview magnificently, she revealed Friday during an awards banquet how hard it really was.
''There were days when the thought of addressing the media overwhelmed me,'' she said. ''Imagine yourself in China, standing before a crowd full of Chinese people who are staring at you, and you had to make a speech in Chinese. That's how I felt.''
It makes the effort all that more impressive.
Juli Inkster has been on the LPGA Tour for 30 years and has seen the transformation of the first truly global tour in golf. Lately, she has embraced it. Ask just about any South Korean for a list of their favorite Americans and Inkster's name will be somewhere near the top. For Choi, one of her best memories is the day Inkster walked up to her and asked to play a practice round.
Inkster mingles with them as easily as she once did with good friends Pat Hurst, Meg Mallon and Dottie Pepper.
''I've gone out of my way to get to know them, get to know what makes them tick,'' Inkster said. ''What we need is to get this across on TV more, to get more of our fans - American fans - to get to know these girls. There's a lot of great personalities. Some of them are my good friends. They're funny. And they're very good.''
Ryu, another U.S. Women's Open champion, has been the most impressive picking up the language, and it shows. There is a comfort level with Ryu that's obvious as she walks down the range, through an autograph line, in front of a camera. The smile rarely leaves her.
She learned mainly by watching dramas -- ''CSI'' and ''Gossip Girl'' are her favorites -- and by reading interviews of other players. Ryu says the Koreans will speak English when they're with their caddies or out with other American players so no one feels left out.
''It feels awkward to speak English with Koreans,'' she said with a laugh.
Hee Kyung Seo, known in South Korea as the ''supermodel of the fairway'' because of her fashion sense, was on the putting green when she laughed at the reminder that the Titleholders was ''my last tournament as a single woman.'' She is to be married this weekend.
How did she learn English so well?
''My parents drove around the country in a van and dropped me off in Kansas,'' she said.
Seo was only partially joking. She had relatives in Lawrence, Kan., and she spent some time with them as a teenager. It was her first step toward learning English, and in a roundabout way, preparing for a career on the LPGA Tour.
And, yes, she knows all about ''Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk.''
''I went to a couple of basketball games,'' Seo said. ''They had a guard that was really short. But he was really cute.''