Imagine what could have happened to Angel Cabrera if he belonged to a tour that required its players to speak English.
A powerful Argentine who rose from an impoverished childhood, he won the U.S. Open last year at Oakmont by holding off Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. In the hours after the trophy presentation, Cabrera made his way through a maze of media interviews in Spanish with an interpreter at his side.
Under a new LPGA Tour policy effective next year, Cabrera might have been suspended. Or, he might not have played at all if an official on that tour deemed he was ineffective in English.
“You don’t have to speak English to play golf,” Cabrera said Thursday in Spanish, joining a chorus of male players perplexed by the LPGA Tour’s decision to be punish women golfers for not speaking English in pro-ams, trophy presentations and media interviews.
K.J. Choi of South Korea recalled his rookie season on the PGA Tour in 2000, when his English was so limited that he often got lost going to the golf course because he couldn’t read street signs. He wasn’t comfortable enough to speak English for five years, despite constant study.
Asked about the LPGA Tour’s policy, he shook his head.
“It is a difficult situation,” Choi said in English. “It is good for them to help players learn English. When I learned English, I became a better player. But to suspend them? I don’t think so.”
And if the PGA Tour had a policy like that in 2000?
“I would have had to go home,” Choi said.
Golfweek magazine first reported the LPGA Tour’s new English-only policy Monday, leaving the tour scrambling to explain and defend itself over the past several days as the issue has stayed on the forefront of public discussion.
The LPGA Tour didn’t get this much attention when Annika Sorenstam said she was retiring.
“We have been puzzled, if not surprised, by some of the reactions,” said deputy commissioner Libba Galloway, who previously was the LPGA’s top attorney. “We see this as a pro-international move.”
Galloway said title sponsors offer individual endorsement deals to players— Sorenstam has a longtime deal with Kraft—and players who can’t interact in pro-ams or with sponsors because of limited English are hurting themselves financially.
The LPGA Tour is still working on the policy, which will be delivered to players at the end of the year. She said its professional development group is consulting with outside experts, and the LPGA will administer the evaluation itself.
Players won’t have to be fluent, rather what Galloway described as “effective.”
“You have to interact effectively with your pro-am partners. You need to be able to do media interviews. And you need to give a winner’s acceptance speech in English,” she said. “They must speak at a level that effectively accomplishes those three things.”
Strangely absent during this debate is LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens. According to Golfweek, Bivens held a meeting with only the South Koreans last week in Portland, which led some to believe they were being singled out.
Galloway said Bivens was returning from the West Coast on Monday and Tuesday, and “I drew the long straw” to handle media inquiries.
The LPGA Tour for the last three years has offered language training through a Rosetta Stone online program and has offered a cross-cultural program for its international players.
But there has never been a mandate until now.
“It’s not a sign that it’s not working,” Galloway said. “What we’re seeing is that a handful of players don’t speak to the level they need to be.”
But if only a few players struggle with English, why develop a policy equipped with a penalty?
“We’re not just looking at the LPGA as it is now,” Galloway said. “We’re looking at the future of the LPGA. As you well know, we have a large international membership. All indications are it’s not going to get smaller.”
Se Ri Pak was the only South Korean on the LPGA Tour in 1998, when she inspired a nation with her victory in the U.S. Women’s Open. Now, there are 45 players from South Korea on tour—two of them won majors this year—and 121 international players representing 26 countries.
International players have won 19 of 24 events this year—six by Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, seven by Asians. Most of them are capable in English, including LPGA champion Yani Tseng of Taiwan and U.S. Women’s Open champion InBee Park of South Korea.
“We believe so much in what we’re doing,” Galloway said. “If we’re getting any criticism, it’s coming from outside the organization. It’s not coming from the players, and those are the people to whom it applies.”
Padraig Harrington, who has won the last two majors, wondered if the LPGA Tour is taking on too much. Like others, he wants to know how much English a player is supposed to learn to be “effective.”
“Surely if you can say, ‘Hello,’ that’s English. Is that good enough?” he said. “Who draws the line about how many words you’ve got to know in English? What if you have a person who genuinely struggles with learning a new language; they have a learning disability? That’s tough to ask somebody with a learning disability, who might have found golf as the saving grace in their life, to ask them to learn a different language or else you can’t play.
“There’s a lot of different issues to that,” he said. “It’s a big step to actually put it out there.”
Cabrera understands the importance of speaking English, and he realizes it only hurts him. He said he has a good relationship with Woods, but because of the language barrier, it always will be limited.
What troubles the big Argentine is why language should affect performance inside the ropes.
“I remember what (Roberto) de Vicenzo once said to me,” Cabrera said. “If you shoot under 70, everybody will understand you. If you don’t, they won’t want to talk to you, anyway.”
A few months ago, Choi had finished a brief interview when a reporter tried to say, “Thank you” in Korean, but told him he forgot the word. Choi laughed and playfully shared this thought with his agent.
“I taught him one word seven years ago and he still doesn’t remember,” he said. “And he expects me to learn his entire language?”