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  1. Mind your language!

Mind your language!

Fluency in English isn’t essential for top pros, but it’s an edge in the sponsor stakes

By: | Published: November 9, 2014 12:20 AM

The Junior Training Programme (JTP) at the Delhi Golf Club—arguably the most successful nursery for the game in the country—doesn’t restrict its curricula to golf instruction. As a holistic development course, it also offers students schooling in table manners and lessons in the English language. This column is not to deride the JTP or to cast it in an elitist light. After all, social and English language skills are an important part of overall personality development for any child in the country—golfer or not—and there’s no plausible downside of imparting such to those who may not have had the opportunities to pick them up.

But it raises a pertinent question about the relevance of speaking the language with respect to success as a touring golf professional. And that’s not confined to India alone: in 2008, the LPGA kicked up a storm by deciding that its members need to be conversant in English, and it wasn’t only to promote fraternising between players. The English proficiency standards were proposed to be imposed under penalty of suspension and, as the ensuing media outrage which followed demonstrated, the ethical premises of such a decision were questionable. The move, however, did underscore the fact that golf is as much a business as it is a game, and, if sponsors are miffed, well, then someone better do something about it. In her defence, the then-commissioner of the LPGA, Carolyn Bivens, told Golf World magazine that “If these players don’t take this step (and learn English), their ability to earn a living is reduced. I can’t imagine that someone who has thought this through does not realise that in opposing this measure they are penalising the very people they are deciding to help”. At the heart of the matter is that the LPGA believed that effective communication in English was fundamental to its business. And given that the Koreans constituted (and still do) the largest nationality group on a tour, which derives almost all its sponsorship from the US, a lack of English-speaking pros was deemed detrimental.

Cut to the PGTI tour and it’s a very different situation. Incomprehension is not an issue as most, if not all, players speak either English or Hindi, and ditto for the audience and sponsors. In that sense, having players, even top-ranked ones who do not speak English, does not create any marketing problems for the PGTI. Among the players on the tour, too, things have changed over the past decade. The days of the ‘gentlemen pros’ are long gone—there is no differentiation in the treatment and hospitality meted out to players emanating from their ability or inability to speak the English language. The quintessential stiff upper lip has all but disappeared among players. There are cliques, but no alienation.
There is no discrimination angle here (as was alleged about LPGA’s move). It’s more a question of whether pros who can’t speak English are missing out on opportunities, which could have been theirs if they did. For sponsors, understandably, it is a question of building brand equity. The primary leverage that a player can provide is exposure and that is directly linked to his performances, the tournaments and tours he plays in. The pro’s abilities as a brand ambassador, independent of his golfing abilities, are secondary, but still important. Simply put, that means that a top player can expect to get a sponsorship irrespective of his English-speaking abilities. That is not synonymous with an inability to communicate. Players are and will always be expected to be able to interact with the media, thank sponsors and interact with participants at pro-ams.

The Petroleum Sports Promotion Board, which has been the biggest supporter of amateur golf in the country, makes no distinctions, but does place a premium on education. Amateurs who are graduates are taken on in a higher grade as opposed to those who are not and paid better.
It can be argued that the business of golf is still comparatively nascent in India and that is why there is no comparison with the LPGA whose primary audience is mono-lingual. Also, the interest of the broadcast media and the general public in the game is not so much in India that post-round interviews and live telecasts are the order of the day. But even when that happens, it is not bound to be much of an issue.
Even Bivens had to backtrack; in a move meant to pacify the LPGA, it soon followed up its contentious announcement by clarifying that the players who wouldn’t be able to pass the ‘oral’ English speaking test would be ‘penalised’ and allowed to play. As it turns out, not too many Korean pros actually took the time to take English classes; being a playing golf professional isn’t the best job when it comes to free time. On the home front, it doesn’t look like the Indian pros will have to make that time. Punjabi still rules. Chak De, I say! Oops, sorry can’t really translate that into Queen’s English.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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