Asian golfers are front and center on the women’s tour — and nobody’s happier than the LPGA.In late 2003, three-time Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) major winner Jan Stephenson was asked by a Golf Magazine interviewer about the LPGA Tour’s problems. She answered quite candidly: “The Asians are killing our tour. Absolutely killing it,” she said, citing their “lack of emotion” and “refusal to speak English.” When the issue hit newsstands in November of that year, the response was immediate — and yet strangely muted.
While Stephenson’s comments were universally condemned, even her strongest critics acknowledged that many other players shared her sentiments. Granted, they kept it to themselves rather than saying so in an international publication, but the affirmations leaked out nonetheless. In off-the-record quotes chronicled by golf and mainstream publications alike, other American and European players took Asian players — particularly Koreans — to task for everything from on-course etiquette to off-course fraternizing (or a lack thereof).
Stephenson quickly apologized for her comments; clearly she didn’t appreciate the irony of an Australian calling for a quota on international players. But eight years later, with Asian players dominating the LPGA like never before, the tour is embracing its diversity. Instead of asking why one continent is producing more topflight golfers than another, executives, sponsors and players have been going out of their way to celebrate it.
In the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings, six of the top 10 ranked players halfway through the season hailed from Asia (four from South Korea, one from Japan and one, top-ranked Yani Tseng, from Taiwan). Look farther down the list and the geographic trend holds, as 14 of the top 25 golfers and 30 of the top 50 hail from Asia. South Korean players occupy 18 of those 30 slots, and Japanese players hold 11 of them.
When LPGA commissioner Mike Whan stepped into the job at the start of 2010, he inherited a situation that was both harrowing and enviable. Harrowing in that the economy had scared sponsors away — the number of events had been curtailed as a result — but enviable in that the huge base of successful Asian players had cleared the way for global expansion of the sort many U.S. sports leagues covet. Unlike the PGA, the LPGA runs a substantial percentage of its events outside North America — in 2011, 13 of its scheduled 26, or 50 percent.
“Let’s say you give me two choices: I can be the commissioner in 1980, when all the players, sponsors and fans came from either the U.S. or Europe, or I can be the commissioner in 2011, when you have players and sponsors and fans from every corner of the globe, and your tournaments are aired in 40 different countries around the world,” he proposes. “I’ll take 2011. That’s the tour I’d like to be associated with. That’s the future.”
Whan doesn’t see the rise of Asian players as a concern so much as an opportunity. His goal for the months and years ahead, then, is to provide support for these players in the United States — and to offer comparable support for American players who hope to achieve prominence abroad. To this end, the LPGA started working with the Indianapolis-based Language Training Center, which offers language lessons as well as preparation in what company president Martin George calls “cross-cultural readiness” to any player who wants it, Asian or otherwise.