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  • LPGA to golfers: speak English or get off the tour

    The LPGA is going English-only. Following the lead of the Salvation Army, St. Anne Catholic School, and Geno's Steaks, the Ladies Professional Golf Association has made English its official language. Not only that, the association warned the Korean golfers on the tour that even if they're winning tournaments, they'll be suspended if they don't start speaking English by 2009.

    The LPGA defended its new rule by arguing that golf is entertainment as well as sport. It further insisted that amateurs playing with the Korean pros in U.S. pro-am tournaments were not amused when their partners couldn't sufficiently entertain them in English. Perhaps not, but with 121 foreign players representing 26 different countries on the LPGA Tour, and 45 golfers from Korea, there have been no complaints from corporate sponsors or pro-am contestants about the inability of foreign players to communicate or entertain. 

    While requiring golfers to speak English feeds into the current mania for declaring English official everywhere that Americans gather, golf itself originated not in the U.S. but in Scotland, in the 15th century. The sport, or entertainment, if you prefer, didn't become popular in England for another 150 years, and it didn't cross the Atlantic until the 1780s, when Scottish merchants set up the first course in Charleston, South Carolina.

    Presumably women were excluded from the South Carolina Golf Club, as the earliest country club was known, along with Africans and the occasional Jew or Catholic who might turn up, regardless of whether or not they brought their own clubs, or their willingness to entertain the members.

    To their credit, many readers responded to stories about the LPGA's action by deploring it, noting that English isn't America's official language, and pointing out that no other sport actively excludes foreign players, especially if they're winners. But plenty of them agreed with this Golf Week reader:

    Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! LPGA, Thank you so much for finally standing up and making people who are making money here in the U.S.A. to speak the language!!! I applaud you!! Hopefully, maybe now other's will stand and demand English to be spoken in America!!! What a COUNTRY!!!

    Next the English-only crowd will want the oil sheiks making money in America to speak English, or the Columbian drug lords.

    Perhaps it's time to acknowledge that golf is an immigrant to America, like pizza, beer, bowling, and many other things we think of as quintessentially American, such as the English language. English, after all, was imported not just into the U.S. of A, at the expense of indigenous languages, it was also brought to England by invading Germanic tribes from Europe who displaced the native Celtic peoples of Britain and replaced their native Gaelic speech.

    Not only that, but despite its long association with St. Andrews, according to the Dictionary of the Scots Language the word golf may not even come from the Gaelic/English blend called Scots. It may actually be a borrowing of the Dutch word kolf, "the club used in a game similar to golf." The dictionary cites the earliest Scots example of the word in 1457: "At the fut bal ande the golf be vtterly criyt done and nocht vsyt." And as this 1610 cite demonstrates, in those early days, even without women present, golf was considered too entertaining to be played on the Sabbath: "Thair sall be na public playing suffred on the Sabbath dayes, as playing at … archerie, gowfe, &c."

    All sorts of rules now formalize the playing of golf – everything from the kind of shoes permitted on the course to what constitutes a mulligan, or do-over. To be sure, the US Golf Association rule book doesn't permit gimmes or mulligans, and its only language-related rule says that "fore" is the customary warning if a shot might hit someone. There are some official definitions as well, but nowhere in the rule book or in the historical record are the languages to be spoken by golfers either specified or excluded.

    But even without exclusive language rules, golf and the country clubs where it is played have become so entwined with the idea of exclusion that Merriam-Webster's online dictionary illustrates its definition of the word restricted with an example referring to these country clubs:


    Pronunciation: \ri-'strik-ted\

    Function: adjective

    Date: 1585


    subject or subjected to restriction: asa: not general : limited restricted effect>b: available to the use of particular groups or specifically excluding others restricted country club>c: not intended for general circulation or release restricted document>

    I'm no golfer, but it seems to me that a sport with a long and shameful history of restricting its country clubs on the basis of a player's religion, race, or gender, wouldn't want to make a linguistic restriction par for the course.  

    But one Canadian country club already does just that, restricting membership to English speakers, a policy put in place eight years ago -- in bilingual Canada -- in response to membership applications from Chinese, Japanese and Korean golfers.

    The Vancouver Golf Club's rule says, "VGC welcomes application for membership without restriction based on race, religion or culture. All members must be able and willing to converse and correspond with the club and members in English."

    Like the LPGA, club manager Brent Gough insists that the English requirement is not prejudicial: "Everyone is welcome to our club as long as you meet our criteria."

    Those criteria include a credit check, a criminal background check, a check for the dues, and a passing score on an English proficiency test. According to Gough, the English requirement is simply a matter of making sure members "can understand the club's rules and regulations." Presumably that includes the regulation that nonanglophones need not apply.

    UPDATE: After a number of protests against the English-only policy, including calls from several California lawmakers and a major corporate tour sponsor, the LPGA backed away from the threat to suspend players whose English wasn't up to par. However, the organization still hasn't ruled out fining players whose English is inadequate.

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