LPGA Tour's English rule caught many in Korean community by surprise

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Meena Lee smiled and took a step back. Then another. Then a third and a fourth. Her face melted from warmth to confusion, then fear. She shook her head. She looked down, up, everywhere. She turned bright red.

Lee's moment of near-panic came at her gym, after a workout, when an American reporter asked for her thoughts about the LPGA's new guidelines on speaking English. It seemed Lee couldn't think of a single English word. Yet the 22-year-old spent the better part of the previous hour speaking serviceable English to her personal trainer, Andrea Doddato, who knows almost no Korean.

Lee explained the controversy of the new regulations, suspecting Eun-Hee Ji's win in Rochester in June -- more specifically, her use of a translator afterward -- triggered the decision to threaten suspension of LPGA players who did not learn English. Lee has studied English for three years. But when a reporter's notebook appeared, she blushed and said, "Maybe next time."

Another young Korean golfer, Amy Yang, recently told Doddato about how the new guidelines drove her father to ban her from speaking Korean around the house. But when asked for an interview, Yang said no.

"They hate to talk," said Doddato, 35, who trains several Korean players. "I don't know if they feel uncomfortable. But they all seem to understand everything I say."

While a lot of American athletes want to be famous in the U.S., the majority of Koreans on the tour want only to be perfect. And when put into a high-pressure situation when they might be imperfect, many would rather be silent.

"Even though I've lived in the U.S. for 15 years, I'm nervous, too," said YoonSook Park, who tutors Korean golfers in Los Angeles, "Korean culture is not about 'myself.' Most Korean girls are really shy. That is [the] culture. And this [rule] will make them even more scared."

LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens has spoken of her desire to "brand," like NASCAR.

"If these players don't take this step [and learn English]," she told Golf World, "their ability to earn a living is reduced. They will be cut out of corporate and endorsement opportunities."

But what if Korean athletes don't strive to be branded in America? What if they only want to play and win? What if they don't feel comfortable back-slapping with sponsors and gabbing for the cameras?

Doddato pushed to get Angela Park -- who speaks excellent English -- a media opportunity with a fitness magazine. All Park had to do was sit for an interview.

"I had to hunt her down," Doddato said. "It was like pulling teeth."

Park simply didn't embrace the spotlight the way Morgan Pressel and Natalie Gulbis do.

"All we are asking," Bivens said in a statement, "is that in the three designated situations that are very important to the success of the LPGA and its players -- pro-ams, winner acceptance speeches and media interviews -- the players must be able to communicate basic sentiments in English."

That seems reasonable, but even rudimentary English can be quite a lot to ask of a group that has such a fear of embarrassment in front of strangers.

"Koreans are not used to speaking up and having conversational English," said Rick Phillips, cultural affairs director of the Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles. "Culturally, that wouldn't be something Koreans would do."

The sad irony is that Koreans place an enormous emphasis on learning English. Many parents dream of nothing more than to send a child to an American university. And American college graduates get huge salaries to spend a year in Seoul, teaching the language.

Walk around a public square in Seoul, and schoolchildren will approach an American and try phrases they've learned in class, such as "Hi! How are you?" Then they will often run away in shyness.

So even if Bivens is trying to help -- and many Koreans agree with her on the need to learn English -- this rule feels like a condemnation of the skills Koreans have worked so hard to master.

"This really took Koreans by surprise," said Phillips. "It shocked them. They take this personally."

And for some in the Korean community, this is more than a gentle prodding; it's intimidation.

"People are really angry," said Michael Won, who writes for the Korean Daily in Los Angeles. "For the past 10 years, it seems there isn't one big LPGA star. In order to do that, they have to shrink the number of Korean players."

Whatever the motivation, the new guidelines certainly strike a contrast with the early part of this decade, when Se Ri Pak's success drew dozens of Korean girls to the U.S. -- and brought hefty Korean TV contracts that still line the pockets of the LPGA today.

Back in 2004, then-LPGA Tour commissioner Ty Votaw arranged for his staff to take a seminar in Los Angeles on Korean culture. Phillips helped lead the tutorial.

"Back then, they seemed very open," said Phillips. "I don't know where this is coming from. It baffles me."

LPGA Tour star Se Ri Pak -- who is credited with starting the influx of talent from her native South Korea -- was so shy when she came to play in the United States that she cowered near her locker to avoid conversation. So it's hard not to wonder if the next great champion will be equally bashful, and decide the trip to America is simply not worth the worry.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.