Jan Stephenson says LPGA's English-language rule has brought her a new wave of support

Jan Stephenson says LPGA’s English-language rule has brought her a new wave of support

Jan Stephenson in 2006
Provided by LPGA Tour

The e-mails and notes have poured over the last week, Jan Stephenson said, and they have all carried essentially the same message: You were right, Jan.

LPGA officials sparked a controversy last week when they announced a new policy that will require its players to speak English. The language guideline will go into effect next year and includes a stipulation that those who have been LPGA members for two years will face suspension if they’re unable to pass an oral evaluation of their English skills.

The rule, clearly aimed at the growing number of Asian players dominating the tour, seemed to confirm that Stephenson, a Hall of Fame golfer, was not alone in the sentiments that got her in trouble five years ago. She drew a firestorm of criticism for saying in a 2003 GOLF Magazine interview that the influx of Asian players was “killing” the tour and that the LPGA should consider quotas on foreign players. Stephenson was accused of making racially insensitive remarks and was criticized by then-LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw. She apologized but was still ostracized.

“I talked to the LPGA this morning, and now they’re saying, yes, it [foreign players] is an issue,” Stephenson said by phone from her Florida office Tuesday. “I said, I’ve finally been vindicated.”

Stephenson’s office has been inundated with messages from well-wishers, she said, including some surprising ones who referred to her 2003 remarks. “There were a couple of players at the time who went on TV and said, ‘I can’t believe she did that, it was racially insensitive,'” Stephenson said. “They e-mailed me now and said, ‘I really feel badly I wasn’t there for you.’ I’m not going to name names but that was really nice. The neatest thing has been the phone calls and messages from my friends to the Golf Channel and the tour saying, Jan was right. It makes me feel a little better. I was devastated then that my career was going to finish with this horrible, negative thing.”

Stephenson is now thriving as a golf course designer, but the controversy five years ago cost her several endorsement contracts, including one very lucrative clothing deal. She had a tearful meeting with former LPGA Commissioner Charlie Meacham about how she should respond to the article. Stephenson said that she also heard support, albeit quiet support, back in 2003.

“A lot of the media said to me under the table, ‘You’re right but we can’t afford to be on your side.’ A lot of players did, too. I also got e-mails from some of them saying, ‘Finally someone said what we’ve been saying in the locker room for a long time.'”

“Some players like Grace Park got it. I called her right away and said, I did not mean it the way it came out. She said, ‘I know the way you are, you’re passionate and you tell it like it is.'”

The LPGA currently has 45 players from South Korea and 121 players from 26 different countries. Nearly half of the top 25 players in the Rolex Rankings (12) are Asian, including nine Koreans. Five are American, five are from Europe, and one each is from Mexico (top-ranked Lorena Ochoa), Brazil and Australia.

All four LPGA major championships were won by non-Americans this year, three of them by Asians—Taiwan’s Yani Tseng, LPGA Championship; South Korea’s Inbee Park, U.S. Women’s Open; South Korea’s Ji-Yai Shin, Women’s British Open; Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa, Nabisco Championship.

Stephenson said she supports current LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens in this fluency initiative and wishes that foreign players had been strongly encouraged sooner to bridge the language barrier.