Posted by: happyfan08 | June 3, 2010

The LPGA’s Identity Crisis

Over the past few years, I’ve written a lot about the LPGA and its seeming reluctance to embrace the Korean golfers as the stars they are.  What’s interesting is that, through all the years of Korean golfers playing on tour in large numbers and winning frequently, I’ve seen no noticeable decrease in the amount of resistance to them from a subset of American fans and American media.  No matter how exciting a tournament win by a Korean might be, there is inevitably a backlash when a Kim or Lee appears atop a leaderboard.  Regardless of whether that winner is stoic like Seon Hwa Lee or bubbly like Jiyai Shin, somebody will complain about the ‘robotic’, ‘unemotional’ Koreans.  No matter if that player is fluent in English or still learning the language, somebody will whine about how the Koreans ‘refuse’ to learn English.  And over and over again, people will write that the LPGA will not be ‘saved’ until an American (usually Michelle Wie is mentioned) becomes the top player on tour.

Jiyai Shin

Of course, this reaction seems to fly in the face of the reality.  Which is, namely, that there are plenty of emotional Koreans, that they have worked darn hard for the most part to assimilate themselves on tour, and that far from hurting the tour, the Korean presence has in fact injected new life, new competitiveness and a boatload of cash into the league.

So what exactly is the problem?  For years I have figured there was a strong element of xenophobia and perhaps a dash of racism in this response.  I’m sure this is part of it, as we never heard this kind of brouhaha when it was the stoic Swede Annika Sorenstam who was working 12 hours a day and winning every tournament in sight.  Sorenstam even publicly balked at the notion she should be more ‘entertaining’ a personality, saying it wasn’t her job to be a ‘comedian’ (imagine for one moment a Korean trying to get away with saying something like that) .  But the more I think about it, the more I believe there may be another issue at work here as well.

My insight came when I thought about the KLPGA.  Somebody posted a question, asking why it was OK for the KLPGA to limit the number of foreign born players on tour, and not the LPGA?  I don’t know that the KLPGA in fact does that, but my initial reaction was that it was nonetheless OK.  This caused me to think: why would it be OK for the KLPGA to do that, and not the LPGA?  And that’s when I realized that the LPGA has an identity crisis that they need to resolve, and that this may in fact be at the heart of what is happening with these controversies.

To wit, there are two defining statements you could make about the LPGA.  Either one may be true, but only one, as they are contradictory in many ways.  Statement one: the LPGA is a tour of the best women golfers in the world.  The best players play on this tour, regardless of their national origin.  The sponsors and the tournaments they host will be where the most fan and financial interest is, regardless of which country.  If this means a small or even non-existent presence in any given country, even the US, so be it.  Statement two: the LPGA is an American tour.  It is primarily designed to appeal to American fans and media, the tournament sponsors should mostly or entirely be American, and all or at least the vast majority of the events should take place here. 

Stars like Hee Kyung Seo may soon be joining the LPGA tour

The LPGA has for many years been lucky, in that it has been able to be both of those things at once.  The reason is simple: the best golfers in the world were American, so you could have a tour that both focused on America AND featured the top talent in the world.  But ever since the mid-1990s, more and more of the best golfers in the world have come from somewhere other than the US and Canada.  It is no longer possible for the LPGA to be both the best golfers in the world AND primarily an American tour.  A choice must be made.

Keep in mind that there are several stakeholders in this decision.  I believe that the LPGA tour itself, the board and commissioner, have firmly come down on the side of being the best women’s golf tour, regardless of national origin.  But there are more people involved in this decision than them.  There are also the players, the traditional American fans, and the American media, and all three of those groups seem to be much more ambivalent about this choice.

The implications are clear.  If everyone decides that first and foremost this is an American tour, then the tour is within its rights to limit foreign participation (as long as it’s done fairly: if you limit Koreans, you better limit Swedes and Australians, too).  But if they take this step, they must publicly admit they are NOT the best women golfers in the world, and no longer use this as a selling point.  They must forego all foreign media money, and eliminate tour events outside of the country.  They should probably also limit participation by foreign corporations as sponsors.  The result, naturally, would be a tour greatly reduced in stature and financial power.  I highly doubt that anyone would really want that.  But if you truly believe that the tour is American, you MUST be willing to accept all these conditions or you are not really serious about your opinion.

In Kyung Kim is another bright young Korean star. She defends her title at the State Farm Classic next week

On the other hand, if the decision comes down to the tour being international, then it is time for the fans, players and others to fully embrace that concept, even if it means most of your winners will have Korean or Japanese names.  Even if it means you will have fewer and fewer events in America, even if it means the Solheim Cup may end up admitting players from outside America and Europe to stay current. 

No matter which way the tour and its primary constituents decide, they will lose some fans, media and money.  Some fans simply will not be able to accept a tour different from the one they originally embraced.  But the controversy will slowly come to a close, and the tour will be able to move forward.

Another young Korean LPGA star: two time winner Na Yeon Choi

Personally, I believe the LPGA is heading towards accepting the idea it is the best international players in the world, and I also believe this is the best course it can take.  I can only hope that at least a good portion of the American fans will embrace this notion and go along with it, for it is the way into the future for the oldest women’s sports league in the world.

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Responses

  1. Great write up! I think a good starting point to really help along the notion of being the best tour worldwide and to help the “American fans” accept this is the Media. They are the outlet to the fans and they direct how the international players are portrayed and given media time. The last tournament all they talked about was Angela Stanford even though she was knocked out of the tournament. It starts with them giving the international players the justice of who they are and how they are portrayed. If the media doesn’t do it. This bias or racism will never change.

  2. Why does this “racism” term always enter this discussion? Its nothing to do with race here, and by using it for any dissenting opinion or view, waters down the defintion of a truly powerful term. Its about what can deemed ‘tradition’. Golf is a traditional and very conservative sport. The demographics of its fan base is largely white. largely male, largely aged ( 35-70 perhaps), and most have disposable income to play and buy the products advertised. The tide of change on the LPGA tour is still a new phenomenon. In time it will be accepted. There was time when the great players of the NFL and especially the NBA were white. My how that has changed; and viewership and interest in the sport is perhaps at its all time high. Its not about the color of the skin. Its about the ability and entertainment value. At this point, when one tunes into an LPGA telecast, and 12 out of the 15 names on the leaderboard are Asian, its still out of the ordinary. I remember tuning into an NBA game and seeing 4 of the 5 players on the court being ( for one team, Celtics I believe) being white guys and thought THAT was out of ther ordinary. Can the LPGA survive this transition. I don’t know. I still tune in. I enjoy the Asian players. Just give it time.

  3. If 12 of the top 15 golfers in the world were from Korea on the PGA tour, I wouldn’t watch. Sorry. Every week a new Korean wins an LPGA event. I can’t keep it all straight. They all seem to mesh into one big composite. Don’t know the names, the personalities, the connections. The PGA has college affiliations, state affiliations, teacher/student connections, rivalries, old war horses, new young bucs and everyone speaks English no matter if they are from Spain or Germany or Sweden or S. Africa. They don’t need sexy calendar photo shoots or ‘comedians’. The competition is enough.
    If any country dominated the PGA like Korea has the LPGA, it would ruin the game. The same thing is happening to womens’ tennis, though not to the same extent, with the amount of Russian players in the top 20. Korea might love the fact that their training techniques are producing great players, but I can assure you, the rest of the golf world is non too happy.


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