Tuesday, March 28, 2006 Updated: March 29, 11:45 AM ET
Korean players lost in translation on LPGA
By Eric Adelson ESPN The Magazine
His cell phone rang, and he knew it was much too late at night to be good news.
The caller was Jinnie Lee, one of 32 Koreans on the LPGA Tour. She had eaten something and had an allergic reaction. Her face had turned bright red. Her skin spread with rashes and bumps. She was scared, so scared that she put her mother on the phone. They were driving through Georgia, on the way to a tournament, and they had no idea what to do or where to go. They could only think to call Kyumin Shim, the lone person they knew who spoke both Korean and English.
Meena Lee recently won the Fields Open, but froze up in post-round TV interviews.
Shim, 25, gets paid to handle relations between Korean sponsors and the LPGA. But he spends most of his time translating for players who can't yet speak English. That means nearly two dozen LPGA members rely on Shim for anything and everything.
Shim calmed Lee's family down and told them to look for a hospital sign. No one in Lee's car, however, knew what a hospital sign looked like. So Shim told them to find a gas station and pull over. They did. The Lees handed their phone to an attendant. Shim explained the situation. The attendant gave Shim directions to a hospital, and Shim translated for the Lees. Then the family finally found the hospital, rushed inside, and could not communicate with the nurses. Shim remained on the phone with the Lees for three hours.
"These people need help," Shim says, and he's not talking about just the Lee family.
LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens is proud of the progress that her organization has made in helping to acclimate golfers to American society -- "We have tried to give everyone the tools they need," she says -- but troublesome and potentially embarrassing obstacles remain. Despite the steady and impressive growth of Koreans on tour, the LPGA has only two staffers of Asian descent. Only one -- Shim -- knows Korean.
And even though tournaments such as the MasterCard Classic in Mexico had two translators -- one who spoke English and one who spoke Japanese -- no tournament outside Korea offers Korean translators. That includes several tournaments sponsored by Korean corporations.
That creates obstacles not only with media, but potentially could also affect on-course conversations with rules officials during tournament play.
Shim estimates that of 32 Koreans on tour, only 10 speak "functional" English. Three of this year's top five money-winners -- Seon Hwa Lee and tournament winners Meena Lee and Joo Mi Kim -- still are only beginning to grasp the language.
"A lot of us are not able to speak to the tournament staff," says Meena Lee, who is in her second year living in the States. "If there was a translator on site, it would be a lot easier to focus on my game. I am trying to learn English, but I can't learn that fast."
This has been a thorny issue for the LPGA since the arrival of Se Ri Pak in the 1990s. Her dominance set off a wave of Koreans, who came quickly and with much more knowledge of American golf than American grammar. In 2003, former LPGA icon Jan Stephenson told Golf Magazine the Asians were "killing" the tour. That set off alarms in the office of then-commissioner Ty Votaw, who hired Shim and arranged for a Korean culture class for LPGA staffers.
"We weren't really prepared for the influx," says Votaw, who now works for the PGA Tour. "If membership is a melting pot, then the staff should be."
But Votaw admits he foresaw the need for more "interaction" with the rapidly-growing field of Korean players. He left the tour last year with Shim as the only Asian on staff. And Shim leaves many tournaments on Friday because his sponsorship obligations are complete.
So if a Korean such as Meena Lee wins this week's Kraft Nabisco Championship, there will be no one available on Sunday to translate her words for American media. When Lee won the Fields Open last month in a stirring playoff, The Golf Channel put her on camera and asked for a comment. Lee froze.
"I was so nervous," Lee said Sunday in a three-way call with Shim, who translated. "I tried to answer, but it didn't come out right. I wish there would have been someone to help me out. Then people would be able to learn more about me."
Nearly all of the Koreans on tour are under the age of 30 and single. Only Hee Won Han is married. So non-English speakers must rely on their parents, who travel with them but rarely speak as much English as they do. Few have money to spend on hiring a translator, even though Japanese star Ai Miyazato has done so.
"The Koreans' parents are blindsided," Shim says. "They need to know somebody to hire somebody."
The LPGA has a multi-million dollar contract with Korean television, and although American fans pay nearly all of their attention to Annika Sorenstam, Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer, Natalie Gulbis and Cristie Kerr, the Korean women are superstars back in their home country. Yet all that money and popularity has not led to the hiring of a full-time translator. So Shim fields calls from players and their parents constantly during the day, then he gets calls from media in Korea overnight. Shim spent so much time on the phone to Seoul last year that he had to change his personal cell phone number. His bills came to more than $200 per month.
Bivens points out that she has arranged for interpreters to be at player meetings. "We tap whomever we need to," she says. "A translator is generally at every tournament."
But that's somewhat misleading, since Shim is generally at every tournament, but isn't always available on Sundays. So the LPGA has had to rely on the kindness of bilingual reporters and complete strangers. When Meena Lee finished second at the HSBC Women's World Match Play Championship last year to Marisa Baena, a fan from the gallery accompanied Lee into the press tent and translated. At the Canadian Women's Open, which Lee won, the LPGA got an assist from a female fan who hopped over the rope line to translate. LPGA officials thought the woman was a friend or relative, but then stood by in surprise as the fan introduced herself to Lee's mother.
The LPGA has given Korean golfers a computer program for learning English, but a source within the organization says not a single Korean tour member has completed it, in part because American computer keyboards have English letters.
There is also the feeling among the Koreans that any extra time should be spent practicing.
"I don't know if there's a great deal of motivation [to learn English]," says Bivens.
So Shim remains on the phone. He assists with immigration papers, rental car agreements, change-of-address forms, and even directions. One Korean family, attempting to drive cross-country for a tournament in 2004, followed every sign that said "East" until they got lost. Then Shim got a phone call.
Another Korean, hoping to get a Social Security number, hired a lawyer in Los Angeles to do it for her, oblivious to the fact that Social Security numbers are free.
Last week, Shim got six calls from Koreans about an e-mail with information about the Kraft Nabisco Pro-Am. None of the six could read the e-mail.
"No, this is not my job," Shim says. "But if I don't help them, who will?"
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.