For the last few years I’ve taught a group of about 30 South Korean golfers, ranging from kids to LPGA pros. I also run a Korean-only golf academy in Florida and have another under construction in Korea. My involvement with these players has made me particularly sensitive to the LPGA’s recent attempt to make speaking English a requirement. It’s a complex issue, and I think the LPGA and the Korean players each have legitimate concerns.
The LPGA must satisfy its financial supporters — sponsors, TV and fans. To do that the tour needs its players to interact with people, and the players can’t interact if they can’t speak some English. I see the communication problems when I follow my pupils in pro-ams. Amateurs paired with Korean pros are often uncomfortable because they don’t know how to converse with young women who speak little or no English, while the pros are uncomfortable because they don’t want to offend amateurs who have paid big bucks to play. The tense atmosphere makes these rounds difficult.
And non-English-speaking players are harder for the tour to market. If a player can’t speak to the media, reporters are less likely to write in-depth stories, which means the LPGA loses out on much-needed attention. Short interviews and poor coverage also prevent the Koreans from developing public identities. To remedy this situation, David Leadbetter has suggested that his Korean students adopt nicknames. It was David who helped Ju-Yun Kim, winner of the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open, reinvent herself as Birdie Kim.
The Koreans I know and teach, including four-time winner Seon Hwa Lee (who does speak English), agree with the LPGA and feel every player should speak some English. They understand how vital it is, and that’s why so many Korean women golfers take English lessons. However, the problem they have — and I agree with them — is that taking away somebody’s job because she doesn’t speak a certain language is too severe a penalty. These young women have toiled for years to achieve success, and they’re afraid of losing their right to play on the world’s top women’s tour.
Regardless, I don’t think the English issue will be a problem for long. The next generation of Korean golfers understands the importance of learning English at an early age. The players and their parents realize that the best golf instruction is in the U.S., and the players will learn faster and better if they can converse with their teachers. They also recognize that their role models — Se Ri Pak, Seon Hwa Lee and K.J. Choi — all speak English, and they see how doing so enriches their lives in the U.S. and facilitates their ability to secure sponsors and garner attention. Because all the young Koreans want to learn English, we have English-language classes at the Golf Academy at Sarabande, my teaching facility near Orlando. We’ll also have English-language classes at the academy I’m opening near Seoul next spring.
The LPGA realized it had made a mistake by proposing to suspend players if they didn’t learn some English, but the negative publicity from the scrapped policy will disappear. What will remain is a positive by-product: In a decade, I don’t think there’ll be a Korean player who doesn’t speak some English.