Under increasing criticism, the LPGA Tour on Friday backed off plans to suspend players who cannot speak English well enough to be understood at pro-ams, in interviews or in making acceptance speeches at tournaments.
LPGA Tour commissioner Carolyn Bivens said she would have a revised plan by the end of the year that would not include suspensions, although fining non-English speakers remains an option.
Bivens disclosed the tour's original plan in a meeting with South Korean players two weeks ago at the Safeway Classic in Portland, Ore., Golfweek magazine reported. The policy, which had not been written, was widely criticized as discriminatory, particularly against Asian players.
The LPGA membership includes 121 international players from 26 countries, including 45 from South Korea. Asians won three of the four majors this year.
"We have decided to rescind those penalty provisions," Bivens said in a statement. "After hearing the concerns, we believe there are other ways to achieve our shared objective of supporting and enhancing the business opportunities for every tour player."
The reversal was quickly hailed by two California lawmakers who challenged the original policy.
State Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, had asked the Legislature's legal office to determine whether the English policy violated state or federal anti-discrimination laws. If it was deemed legal, Yee said he would have pushed for legislation banning such policies in California.
The LPGA Tour plays three events in California, including its first major championship.
"I'm very pleased that the LPGA saw the wisdom of the concerns that we raised," Yee said. "It's a no-brainer for those of us who have been the recipient of these kinds of discriminatory acts."
State Assemblyman Ted Lieu, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area, said he would target corporate sponsors if the LPGA persisted with its English requirement.
"I'm pleased they have come to their senses," he said.
Bivens' announcement came two hours before the Asian Pacific American Legal Center planned a news conference in Los Angeles to demand the LPGA overturn its policy.
"Until they completely retract it, issue an apology to the players and the fans, I think we'll remain very concerned and interested in what happens," said Gerald D. Kim, a senior staff attorney for the center. "The LPGA has gone about this totally the wrong way."
One of the tour's title sponsors, State Farm, already weighed in this week by saying it was "dumbfounded."
"We don't understand this and we don't know why they have done it," State Farm spokesman Kip Diggs told Advertising Age on its Web site. "And we have strongly encouraged them to take another look at this."
Bivens said the tour will continue to help international players through a cultural program that has been in place for three years and offers tutors and translators.
Earlier this week, Bivens sent a 1,200-word memo to the LPGA membership to outline the goal behind the new policy. She said players would never be required to be fluent or even proficient in English, but rather would be asked to get by with the basics of the language.
She argued that international players who could communicate effectively in English would improve the pro-am experience, sponsor relations and could help land endorsements for the players.
"We do not, nor will we ever, demand English fluency, or even proficiency, from our international players," she wrote.
"To the contrary, we are asking that they demonstrate a basic level of communication in English at tournaments in the United States in situations that are essential to their job as a member of the LPGA Tour."
Yee said he understood the tour's goal of boosting financial support, but disagreed with the method.
"In 2008, I didn't think an international group like the LPGA would come up with a policy like that," Yee said. "But at the end of the rainbow, the LPGA did understand the harm that they did."
The lawmaker said he will continue with his request to the Legislative Counsel's Office, as a way to prevent similar policies in the future.
Lieu said the LPGA's explanation made it seems as though the tour felt it more important to socialize with sponsors than to play golf.
"If you're a sports fan, you should be outraged," Lieu said.