The LPGA English-Speaking Rule - Are We Asking the Right Questions?

By: Nancy Berkley


The August 20th announcement by the LPGA Tour's deputy commissioner Libba Galloway that the LPGA will be requiring better English-speaking skills from its players was a badly-managed communication. This has not been a good year for women's golf: the death of Golf for Women magazine, the stalled career of Michelle Wie, the retirement of Annika, and now this.

Finally, yesterday, the LPGA commissioner Carolyn F. Bivens attempted to clarify the controversial policy (see her statement on Cybergolf .

[Editor's Note: On September 4, a California state senator began seeking a legal opinion to determine whether the LPGA Tour's language requirement for players violates state or federal law. Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, is upset about the policy and wants to know if violates California laws covering workplace discrimination or disabilities.]

I agree with those who have questioned why over 40 Korean women on the Tour were pulled together at the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., on August 20th to be the first to hear news of the requirement. When a few days later, Galloway said that the language requirement was just an extension of the tour's Five-Points-of Celebrity campaign and not targeted to any specific nationality, her comments were too little and too late to change first impressions and calm those initially angered.

The Five-Points-of-Celebrity campaign, launched in 2002, would have been a good place to center the new English-speaking requirement. Under the campaign, LPGA players have been asked and coached to improve their connection with sponsors and spectators at Tour events by improving their Performance, Passion, Appearance, Approachability and Relevance.

Certainly the ability to communicate is very important. For better or for worse - and based on their financial analysis of TV contracts and sponsors and those important Pro-am events - "English" is the chosen language of Tour celebrities. I can accept that. I understand how a pro-am works.

But I am critical of the way the LPGA rolled this out. In my opinion, I would have preferred an announcement made to the entire tour in one of the commissioner's major communications and not to a segregated group of Korean female professional golfers.

I also would have preferred that it stressed a new and better English language instruction program rather than the defense by commissioner Bivens of the current practices. What a reader is left to conclude is that in spite of the current LPGA tutorial help, the non-English speaking players are: one, not doing their homework; two: just not smart enough to pick up a new language; or three, the LPGA program just isn't good enough.

But enough about the history -I want to focus on another issue. Wouldn't this English language problem not be such a problem for the LPGA if there were more U.S. celebrity golfers and why aren't there?

The answer, I believe, lies in a fundamental problem in the way our young female junior golfers have to make their way up the tour ladder. The problem is that many families of young talented golfers - both girls and boys - face unbearable financial costs in getting their child to excellent teachers and more importantly playing in the right tournaments to position themselves for further competitive growth and recognition. And that is after they figure out the maze of tournament options open to juniors because there is not a single hierarchy in junior golf that exists in other sports like competitive ice skating.

I chaired a panel about the trends in women's golf at the World Scientific Congress of Golf held in Phoenix, Ariz., last March. Not expecting to be interested in the technical papers delivered at this academic conference, I was surprised to find myself riveted to one delivered by Patricia M. Donnelly, PHD, entitled "The Phenomenon of the Female Korean Golfer."

Donnelly offered powerful insights into how the Korean family and culture support the drive to excellence among female golfers. The LPGA should expect to see more Korean women, which perhaps explains the urgency of their new policy.

Since my involvement as an Advisor to Golfer Girl Magazine (www.golfergirlmagazine.com), I have learned a lot more about the world of junior girls' golf. I receive many calls from parents asking if there is any help out there for facing the challenges and, in particular, subsidizing the travel required for a talented 12-year old golfer.

In a recent conversation with a father from New York, I went through the options for his daughter. Did they belong to a private club where, perhaps, the club could offer some financial assistance to his daughter's pursuit? (Clubs do that all the time for their golf professionals when they foot the bill for tournaments and travel.) No, they didn't belong to a private club.

Next, I asked about the municipal course where his daughter played and learned that the facility was not even interested in offering some kind of special green fees for their "home-grown" young player. Not on their budget. We explored the First Tee options - but that didn't work either. We then explored some junior high school support, and that didn't work because his daughter's school was hard-pressed to meet the costs of books and teachers. Our call ended with my suggestion to reach out to the local state golf associations and to the women's committees in particular. I wished him good luck.

For the past several years at the U.S. Women's Open we have an increasing number of young women. But how many were forced to drop off and out along the way? Not because they didn't have talent, but because they didn't have the money to travel to San Diego or Miami or wherever the next best tournament would be. The LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program is great but it has yet to offer a competitive and subsidized tournament for its top students.

I don't have easy answers, but I believe that every golf course and many golf associations have something to offer to the talented junior golfers in this country. It's their obligation to the game. And trends are in their favor. The numbers of junior golfers are growing and girls seem to be taking it up with greater enthusiasm.

In a recent National Golf Foundation study, 41 percent of adult golfers report that they were introduced to the game before age 18. Slightly over a quarter of adult golfers (27 percent) were introduced between the ages of 12 and 17. The good news is that there are more juniors taking up the game, which means a bigger pool of potential stars. The bad news is that there will be more good players who will not be able to afford to hold on to that star.

This problem for young golfers who may be capable of becoming future golf celebrities is relevant to the larger issue of women's golf. Golf is a spectator and participation sport. We have always believed that spectators (whether watching golf on TV or attending an actual tournament) drive participation. Participation in turn drives the entertainment audience - that's the cycle to keep our eye on.

We need celebrity women golfers to maintain a healthy growth cycle for women and men's golf. We need to find a way to encourage and support more young female golfers in the United States. (And I am not excluding the need to keep our young boys in the game as well.) Perhaps this will be on the agenda of the next Golf 20/20 Conference in November.

The question is not really about how to teach Korean golfers to speak English. It's about how to support the careers of our own talented young golfers and to grow more of them in this increasingly global world.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Consulting, is an expert on women's golf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women. She is a contributor to Golf for Women magazine and Chair of the Advisory Board for Golfer Girl Magazine where she writes a special series on careers in the golf industry. She chaired a panel at the World Scientific Congress of Golf in Phoenix in March 2008 and was a guest speaker at the Northern California Business Women's Conference held at Poppyridge Golf Course in Livermore, Calif., in June 2008. Nancy also consults with golf facilities on how to attract more women golfers. She is a resource for golf-industry trends and marketing advice on her website www.nancyberkley.com. Nancy also offers a Quick Question-Free Help Line on her website. After a career as a lawyer and business executive, Nancy founded Berkley Golf Consulting and The Woman's Only Guide® to Golf to share her long-time passion for golf and to help grow the game. Nancy describes herself as a bogey golfer who is too busy to play enough golf. Contact Nancy at info@nancyberkley.com or on www.nancyberkley.com.


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