Even as he works with some of the LPGA Tour’s best players — I.K. Kim and Chella Choi, in addition to past clients like recently retired NBA star Yao Ming — George understands why some of the questions about geography continue to be asked. “Let’s say I’m playing with you in a pro-am. We can talk about Michael Jordan — his golfing habits, how he gambles on the course, ‘Hey, I think he got divorced,’ ” he explains. “Our job is to prepare players for the interactions that you and I take for granted.”
Asian players say they want to participate in those interactions and are no longer daunted by them. “I was a little afraid to talk to [other players, fans and the media]. I would try to make jokes, which was really hard for me,” says Tseng of her first years on the LPGA Tour, before she became comfortable speaking English. “Now I’m used to it. When you speak more, it gets better.” Through a translator — needed because of the interviewer’s inability to speak slowly and coherently, not because of her own facility with the language — third-ranked Jiyai Shin says she agrees: “I want to get to know [the fans], get them to know about me. It’s something I have to try.”
Christina Kim, an ?American-born player of Asian descent and one of the LPGA Tour’s most thoughtful, gregarious personalities, acknowledges that the stereotype of Asian players outworking the competition still persists. At the same time, she notes, “they’re not robots.” As an example, she points to an event in Alabama a few years back. “Inbee Park and Angela Park were on the range for hours. So everybody’s, like, ‘Wow, they’re working hard!’ When I went out there, what they were doing was making the letter ‘I’ and a big heart and the letter ‘U’ out of their divots. They made a game of what they were doing on the course. There’s something beautiful about that.” For what it’s worth, Inbee is Korean and briefly attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Angela is a Brazilian-born player of Asian descent.
So while some old stereotypes may linger, the LPGA has largely succeeded where other professional sports organizations have stumbled. The questions are still asked, but they’ve ceased to chafe the players and the LPGA execs who field them. And whether they realize it or not, the fans are getting caught up in the wave.
“When I came in last year, I got a letter from an older fan. He basically said, ‘Commissioner Whan, your tour will never be great again until you get another great American star like Annika Sorenstam,’ ” Whan recalls. The kicker, of course: Sorenstam is Swedish. Thus he has high hopes that Asian players will experience that same acceptance, if they haven’t already.
“We’re going to make a few ?mistakes along the way,” Whan continues. “Sometimes we’re going to get homesick, and sometimes we’re going to make faux pas, and sometimes there are going to be cultural differences. But at the end of the day, you go global because you really want a world base and a world consumer and a world brand. We’re pretty lucky that we’re creating just that.”