As an LPGA member and former touring professional, I’m closely following the controversy over the Tour’s English-proficiency requirement, which will be enforced at the end of the 2009 season. I played many events in Asian countries, and I can certainly appreciate the language barrier. Often I was paired with young players or caddies who did not speak a word of English except “good shot!” But we Americans are spoiled because in most foreign countries people realize the importance of knowing some English. Asian tour officials, hotel staff and others connected with my travels all spoke conversational English. While it may seem strict and discriminating on the surface, the LPGA policy is actually a great idea for the Tour and its international players. Here’s why: 1. It’s a free education! The LPGA is fully committed to offer resources and tutoring to help foreign players become more proficient in English. Who wouldn’t take advantage of this opportunity? By no means is the LPGA putting the burden exclusively on the player and asking them to be fluent in less than two years. In a letter to LPGA members posted Tuesday, commissioner Carolyn Bivens says, “New members do not need to immediately possess the English-language skills in order to earn their way onto the LPGA; nor are they expected to gain the skills on their own. Instead, the LPGA provides and will continue to provide on-line learning along with tutors and translators over the course of two years in an effort to help them gain the functional communication ability needed to succeed on a U.S.-based tour.” 2. The LPGA Tour does not make sufficient revenues through ticket sales and advertising like many other professional sports. This means the players assume the responsibility for creating and maintaining relationships with corporate sponsors and their customers. These relationships formed in pro-ams and charity events benefit both the player (through endorsement contracts) and the Tour. Corporate involvement equals more events to play and potentially more money to win. In addition, the LPGA needs every bit of visibility it can get. This is not Major League Baseball or the NFL, with their billion-dollar TV contracts and sponsorships. LPGA players need to be able to give interviews, make acceptance speeches and directly interact with fans and volunteers. Seon Hwa Lee, the only Asian player with multiple victories this year, works with an English tutor in the winter. She told Golfweek, which first reported the new policy, her English is improving. "The economy is bad, and we are losing sponsors," Lee said. "Everybody understands." 3. Foreign players may actually perform better as a result of learning English. Consider this story: After playing the third round in the 2006 Florida's Natural Charity Championship in Stockbridge, Ga., South Korean rookie Kyeong Bae and her father drove 400 miles to her home in Florida. When she got home, she logged on the Internet to learn how much money she had earned. To her surprise, she realized the event was NOT YET FINISHED! (She did not realize it was a 72-hole event.) Barely able to speak or read English at the time, Bae had misread tournament information given to the players and thought it was a 54-hole tournament. So she and her father got in the car and drove the 400 miles back to Georgia. Tired after the overnight trip, Bae nonetheless shot a 68 in the final round to finish in a tie for 13th place and win $21,500.
With the LPGA Tour becoming truly international, the English-proficiency policy is a necessary step in preserving the integrity and growth of the Tour. Fans and sponsors in the United States will benefit as will the players themselves.