It is hard to say which ideal gets trampled more by the LPGA's new speak-English-or-you're-out policy, the spirit of golf or the spirit of America. Either way, the women's professional golf tour has turned a no-win situation into a big loss.
A little hint that this was going to be trouble was the way it came out. The LPGA didn't hold a news conference. Instead, it leaked in a hard-hitting story on Golfweek magazine's Web site. The gist is this: The LPGA, worried about losing interest among fans and sponsors, said it will suspend players who can't pass an English oral exam after two years on tour.
This appears aimed directly at South Koreans, who represent 45 of the 121 international players on the tour and who - British Women's Open champion Ji-Yai Shin and U.S. Women's Open champion Inbee Park, to name two - are dominating. The rule is not mean-spirited, but it sure does head the tour down an awfully icy slope without brakes.
Before anyone starts to label the LPGA as Neanderthal at best or racist at worst, you should know that the organization is generally open- minded and forward thinking. It was out in front of the men's tour on drug testing. And it never, ever makes an issue of someone's sexual orientation - no matter what the public might be whispering.
LPGA officials do realize they are in the entertainment business, and business is not so hot when the winner can't communicate with her followers. Also, amateurs pay big money to play in pro-ams. Those folks do not believe they get their money's worth when they cannot get more than "hello" out of the pro they're teamed with.
A few Korean golfers and their agents this week admitted that there are problems to address. "The economy is bad, and we are losing sponsors," Seon-Hwa Lee told the magazine. "Everybody understands."
But what the LPGA did in trying to cure a public-relations dilemma was create a public-relations nightmare. You can't knock someone out of the game just for being quiet. Heck, they make you be quiet at a golf tournament. More important is golf's reputation as honorable. Golfers are responsible for calling penalties on themselves, for honestly keeping an opponent's score. Punishment from headquarters just doesn't fit.
Nor should the rule sit well with Americans in general. We know that professional leagues in other countries (baseball in Japan, basketball in Europe) limit the number of players from the U.S. for fear that our players will overrun the rosters. We don't operate that way. The door is open. If you're good enough, you compete.
That goes in sports or business or medical school. In golf, lowest score wins, period. That goes for American heartthrob Natalie Gulbis or Angel Cabrera, the 2007 U.S. Open champion who speaks almost no English.
Would it help the LPGA if its top players all could connect with a fan base that is thin to start with? You bet. Should there be incentives to make that happen? Sure thing. To its credit, the tour said it will help players acclimate and communicate. Deputy commissioner Libba Galloway told the Golf Channel she doesn't expect the rule to ever come into play because players are working on their language skills.
The problem is they didn't need to use a verbal sledgehammer.