Almost six years ago, former LPGA Tour superstar Jan Stephenson caused more than a ripple of controversy when she infamously told Golf Magazine that the rise of Asian players was “killing” the LPGA Tour.
Her tactless argument unjustly characterized all Asian-born players as lacking emotion and charisma and unable to resonate well enough with the North American audience. It was, understandably, shouted down by fans and experts alike.
What Stephenson could have said then, and it remains an issue to this day, is that there are cultural and language hurdles the LPGA must leap to market its Asian-born golfers and grow interest in the Tour in North America. Because the facts are the “Asian invasion”, which took root just before the turn of the millennium with the arrival of Koreans Se Ri Pak and Mi-Hyun Kim, is in full force and shows no signs of diminishing.
The money list
Asian-born players in the top 30 on the LPGA money list
(as of May 12, 2009)
•3. Jiyai Shin (Korea) – $493,394
•5. Yani Tseng (Taiwan) – $388,946
•6. In-Kyung Kim (Korea) – $359,705
•11. Song-Hee Kim (Korea) – $306,052
•12. Na Yeon Choi (Korea) – $292,283
•19. Hee Young Park (Korea) -196,062
•21. Ai Miyazato (Japan) – $185,060
•23. Sun Young Yoo (Korea) – $170,037
•24. Eun-Hee Ji (Korea) – $166,897
•25. Seon Hwa Lee (Korea) – $138,331
•26. Jee Young Lee (Korea) – $136,217
•28. Teresa Lu (Taiwan) – $120,580
•30. Jimin Kang (Korea) – $108,278
“They’re fabulous,” said Golf Channel analyst Kay Cockerill of the Asian-born players. “To make it on the LPGA Tour you have to be excellent. And to leave your own country and make it here is amazing. When Annika [Sorenstam] started making her mark 15 years ago people called it a Swedish invasion. But I think there were seven or eight [Swedes] on Tour. There are 47 Koreans on Tour this year; it’s really kind of mind-boggling.”
The numbers game
Of the 144 players who have made money on the LPGA Tour this year, 58 of them are Asian born – most hail from South Korea, but there are a few from Japan and Taiwan and also two from Thailand and one from China. Moreover, Asian golfers dominate the top 50 on the LPGA money list. Twenty-three currently appear in the top 50 after last weekend’s Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill event, including three in the top 10 – Jiyai Shin (Korea) at No. 3, Yani Tseng (Taiwan) at No. 5 and In-Kyung Kim (Korea) at No. 6. Kim finished second at Kingsmill to Cristie Kerr, who currently tops the money list. But it seems we hardly know all these great Asian players – some of the best golfers in the world, men or women, and we know very little about them. And we should because not only are they the present, but the future as well; many of them are 20 to 22 years old.
For instance, Kim (21 years old) likes listening to the Beatles, plays the guitar and speaks English fluently, despite spending almost her whole life in South Korea, but it takes a fairly rigorous Internet search to find that out.
“I think it’s very important to get to know these girls,” Cockerill said. “You just can’t deny that there are 47 Korean players out there and several more from Malaysia and Japan, and that they are really good. But the [North] American audience has a hard time distinguishing between players and the names don’t roll off the tongue easily. In-Kyung Kim is hard to say [for example].”
The North American audience
Most Asian players are very well known in their home countries, many reaching real celebrity status, but not so in North America. To that end, last year the LPGA, under the leadership of Commissioner Carolyn Bivens, made an ill-fated attempt to have its foreign-born golfers meet unspecified English-speaking standards in an effort to make them more media- and fan-friendly and more recognizable to the general public.
The ensuing storm that followed washed out the policy before it was ever implemented – probably justifiably. But that hasn’t helped the LPGA’s dilemma of getting its often young Asian players into the homes of North Americans via TV, Internet or print.
“The problem is: One-on-one these gals speak pretty good English,” Cockerill said, “but put them in front of a camera and it’s a different situation. They try to speak perfect English and then they get frustrated and get shy. I try to tell them to ‘just be yourself, use the words that you know and be bold’. That’s what people want to see. I think that’s what Se Ri [Pak] did so well, and the [North] American audience responded to her. I think she only knew about 12 words of English when she first got here, but those were the words she used and she was bold about it and people got to know her and could see her passion for the game.”
For years, the LPGA’s marketing cornerstone has been to ask its players to focus on performance, approachability, passion, appearance and relevance. And while experts say the golf has never been better, the Tour has had a real problem being seen … literally. Its TV contract has been a thorn, though LPGA ratings continue to rise. Of the eight tournaments this year, three have had no TV coverage at all in North America, and the other five, with the exception of the Major – the Kraft Nabisco Championship in early April, have averaged about six hours of cable coverage (some of it taped) on either the Golf Channel or ESPN2.
That problem will be relieved to some extent next year as the LPGA signed a 10-year deal earlier this year with the Golf Channel to broadcast all of its events starting in 2010. The number of live hours and the extent of coverage are still to be determined, but at least fans will know exactly where they need to go for LPGA coverage every week. Cockerill said the Golf Channel and the LPGA have ideas on how to better market the Asian players.
“We’re trying to do more in-depth features on them, showing how serious they are about the game and how they work out, their regimens,” she said. “But we also want to show what they do when they’re not playing golf, when they’re out with their friends – show their personal side more.”
The LPGA Web site (lpga.com) provides biographical and statistical information and occasional features of each golfer on Tour, including the Asian ones and tries to highlight some of the charitable work they do.
The LPGA has also signed a new Korean television contract starting next year which should increase its ever-growing Asian market. But getting to know and recognizing female Asian golfers in North America like we know Yao Ming in basketball or Ichiro Suzuki and Daisuke Matsuzaka in baseball has been an on-going issue for the LPGA.
“We have to educate [North] Americans about who these players are, how good they are and what their names mean,” Cockerill said. “Some people have talked about giving all of them nicknames – I don’t know if that’s the answer, not everybody’s into nicknames. But we do have to get to know them better and embrace the fact that there are all these great Asian players here. … Hopefully they’ll influence the [North] American players and help them get better, because they need to.”