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Translating LPGA’s ‘English’ mandate: It’s all about money

News item: The Ladies Professional Golf Association will require that its players speak “effective” English beginning in 2009 or be suspended from the tour.

In other words, ladies, you all had better be ready, willing and able to “push 1 for English”—and sooner rather than later.

The LPGA didn’t just stir the pot with this new policy, they smashed it. There are either approvals or disapprovals coming out of every golf bag in the country—make that every golf bag in two dozen countries.

A lot has changed since South Korean Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998. Today, there are some 121 international players from 26 countries teeing it up on the LPGA tour. And by now you’ve probably heard it all, ranging from “Well, it’s about time!” to “It isn’t fair to ban someone who can play but can’t say.” And everything in between.

Here’s the way LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens puts it on the association’s Web site: “We—and they—understand that in order for them and the LPGA to be most successful, players must be able to effectively communicate with fans, sponsors and media, the vast majority of whom speak English. Unlike athletes in other sports, LPGA players must entertain and engage sponsors and their customers on a weekly basis.”

Ah ha! So that’s it! Money! Of course it is! Moolah. The long green with the short future. Cold, hard cash! How stupid of me. Money walks the walk and talks the talk. It’s business. There are exceptions, but as someone once said, why does anybody do anything?

I mean, would you pay several hundred bucks to play in an 18-hole pro-am with a man or woman golfer whose English vocabulary consists of little or no more than yes, no, hi and bye? It doesn’t matter if that pro is Miss Korea 10 times over, drives a golf ball 300 yards and never saw a putt she couldn’t make. If you can’t kibitz with the pro at least a little, it ain’t worth it. One doesn’t need to write a fat check to get inside the ropes if all you can do is watch that person play.

Of course, no one affiliated with the LPGA would admit it even if you tied them to a tree and worked them over with a rubber hose, but my guess is the LPGA is worried. The Wendy’s tournament putted out in 2006 and the Ginn Tribute tournaments have been canceled for 2009 and 2010.

Ginn Cos. CEO Bobby Ginn said on the World Golf Web site that the tournament was well-attended and well-watched on TV, but came up short in sponsorship—aka the fat checks.

“The golf tournament business is primarily fueled by economic support,” Ginn said. “We did everything in our power to generate the sponsorship necessary to continue with the Ginn Tribute, but given the current market and corresponding cuts in corporate spending, it was an uphill battle.”

And my guess is, therein lies the problem as well as the reason the LPGA wants to make its product more user-friendly.

Hey, women’s golf has never had it so good. Every tournament field is loaded with birdies and beauties. Never in the history of women’s golf has the LPGA talent been so deep. And for several years the LPGA had its own Tiger Woods in Annika Sorenstam. Then along came Lorena Ochoa—who, like Sorenstam, is fluent in English.

Apparently, though, that isn’t enough. The LPGA money list now is dominated by foreign players and apparently too many of them don’t speak what Bivens refers to as “effective” English.

I agree with half of Bivens’ plan. That is, the LPGA provides tutoring and other tools to improve foreign players’ English and make it mandatory for those who cannot to study our language. It is definitely a detriment when, say, the Wegmans LPGA winner can’t communicate with her pro-am partner, can’t make even a brief acceptance speech more complicated than “thank you” and can’t be interviewed by the media without an interpreter.

On the flipside, though, isn’t kicking them off the tour a tad too severe if they don’t “pass” the test? How ’bout just limiting the number of LPGA tournaments they will be allowed to play? Five, perhaps?

The PGA Tour has a few foreign players who have struggled with the language barrier, but nowhere near as many as the LPGA, which definitely has a major problem—indeed, a growing problem—it needs to fix. And no doubt it will, and hopefully before it’s too late so corporate America won’t lose interest.

In other words, if you can’t schmooze, you lose.

Rick Woodson’s column appears each Friday in the Rochester Business Journal print edition. Listen to his weekly program, “The Golf Tee,” at 9 a.m. Sunday on WHTK-AM 1280.

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