They are famed for their shapely hips, tidy ponytails and colourful sun visors, but the growing number of foreign golfers on America's women's tour will soon have to prove they possess brains as well as beauty – by learning to speak English.
In an attempt to provide corporate sponsors with colourful post-tournament press conferences, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LGPA) has announced that its 121 international players will be required to pass an oral English exam at the start of next year. Failure to pass will result in immediate suspension from the tour.
"We live in a sports-entertainment environment," said Libba Galloway, the deputy commissioner of the LGPA tour. "For an athlete to be successful today in the world we live in, they need to be great performers on and off the course, and being able to communicate effectively with sponsors and fans is a big part of this. Being a US-based tour, and with the majority of our fan base, pro-am contestants, sponsors and participants being English-speaking, we think it is important for our players to effectively communicate in English."
Although the LGPA boasts members from 24 countries, the move is primarily aimed at its contingent of 45 South Korean players, many of whom are teenagers and have little ability to understand even rudimentary English.
As well as upsetting sponsors, their inability to communicate has caused difficulties for tournament organisers. In 2006, the Korean rookie Kyeong Bae drove 400 miles home after playing the third round of Florida's National Charity Championship, mistakenly thinking that she had completed the final round of a 54-hole event. Late that night, Bae realised that she had misread the tournament information, and still had to complete 18 holes the following day. After driving through the night, she shot 69 to finish in 3rd place and win $21,500.
"That's why I don't think this is an overall bad thing," Dottie Pepper, a TV commentator and former LPGA pro, told USA Today. "I think it can also really help the players become more comfortable in the environment they play."
The LPGA said it would provide language-learning software and tutoring to players who fail the test, in an attempt to get their English up to scratch.
There has been concern among sponsors that Korean golfers, who now dominate the tour, are doing little to create a domestic fan-base. The Korean player Se Ri Pak told The New York Times: "We agree we should speak some English. We play so good overall. When you win, you should give your speech in English."
The move has attracted criticism from civil liberties campaigners, who say it may violate discrimination laws. At present, no other major US sport tries to impose a common language. "This may well violate discrimination law because language is a key element in a person's national origin," said Howard Simpson, of the American Civil Liberties Union. "People should be judged on their ability to perform a job. English fluency has no more to do with the ability to play 18 holes of golf than whether you walk 18 holes or ride 18 holes."