Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Globalization and Nationalism in Women's Professional Golf

There was a fascinating moment during Morgan Pressel's interview after her 2nd-round 65 at the Wegmans LPGA last Friday, which a recent Ron Sirak piece on the paucity of American winners during the Sorenstam Era and a local media video overview of the U.S. Women Open's Asian contingent just called to mind. Together, they raise issues for me about the relation between globalization and nationalism in women's golf.

About 13 and a half minutes into a Friday webcast, the producers aired a clip from a post-round press conference in which a reporter asked Pressel how she felt as one of the few Americans at the top of the leaderboard, particularly heading into the U.S. Women's Open. You know, the typical nationalist question:

Is there ever a feeling for you, as like, take back your tour? Because when we looked at the leaderboard we had only 2 Americans in the top 14 yesterday. Is there a feeling like sometimes you're a minority on your own golf tour?

Ironies abound in this question. In fact, Pressel is a minority on the LPGA. I don't know how many Jewish golfers there are on tour, but they certainly don't make up the majority. I realize the reporter was seeing her as 100% American, which of course she is, but you don't have to go all the way back to the beginning of the last century when so many Jewish immigrants were coming to America to find a time when my "of course" wouldn't have made much sense to anyone. As Werner Sollors reminds us in the 3rd chapter of Beyond Ethnicity, it was a Jewish immigrant, Israel Zangwill, who invented the "melting pot" in 1908, but as Matthew Frye Jacobson shows in the 5th and 8th chapters of Whiteness of a Different Color, it took until the 1940s for the concept to become popular and influential--and probably until the 1990s for it to become naturalized and taken-for-granted.

I don't know how aware Pressel was of these ironies and histories, but her answer is worth hearing as well as reading, for there are levels of nuance in her face and voice that the words alone don't capture:

Ummm [looking away from the reporter], I don't think about it like that. I mean, that's, uh, one of the great things [looking back to him] about our tour is that there are, um, so many...these are the best players from all over the world. And, you know, I'm out here, and I just want to play well, and, um [smiling], all the other Americans [little laugh], especially the young Americans that are coming up around here, we all want to play well, definitely.

The reporter doesn't accept her textbook globalist/individualist-style answer:

But is there a feeling that you're sort of a little bit carrying the flag in a tournament like this when there's so many foreign players dominating the leaderboard?

Pressel sticks to her guns:

No, I mean, that's, you know, these are the best players in the world and, you know, we're happy to have them. It shows the strength of our tour as opposed to other places in the world, and we've just gotta--in order to be the best you've gotta beat the best, it doesn't matter where you come from.

Straight-up cosmopolitanism, it seems at first, definitely in line with the LPGA's push to be recognized as a world tour (and with the fact that more TV money comes from Korea and Japan than the U.S.). And yet, Pressel refers to the LPGA as "our tour," echoing the reporter's "your tour," and shifts from "we've just gotta" (as in, "we young Americans have to...") to the more distanced second person at the end of her answer, almost as if she was reminding herself to denationalize her answer. But the Americanness of her answer comes through in other ways--and I'm not just referring to her "um"s and "you know"s, nor her very American openness to international competition and friendliness toward her competitors from abroad. No, I'm talking about the Tiger Woods impression she seemed to be doing throughout her interviews that week. What happened to the bubbly, feisty, motormouth persona that drew so many to her when she first came to national prominence? Perhaps she's hoping that if she talks like Tiger she'll start playing like Tiger?

I'm also talking about that particularly American version of globalism, Pressel's closing "it doesn't matter where you come from." Contrast that with new mom Hee-Won Han, who travelled back to Korea in the off-week for an early celebration of her son's 1st birthday (his grandparents are raising him while he's an infant), just so she could prepare for the Open. On a different webcast, she just seemed saddened by well-intentioned questions about him and her family. Distance matters. And so does language and culture. Even Europeans fluent in English had a different take on globalization than Pressel, sometimes reminding their interviewer, "We have McDonald's, too," and at other times insisting you can eat healthier in America because American supermarkets offer more choices to consumers than European ones (just to pick out 2 moments from the webcasts that stick out to me). For them and for every Korean golfer who emphasizes hard work, individual effort, and making the most of opportunity, globalization can sound somewhat American. The ball may not know where the person hitting it comes from (to paraphrase one of the Korean golfers interviewed in the Open preview), but everyone else knows (at least roughly)....

The fact is, nationalism plays a huge role in women's golf. Would the Solheim and Kyoraku Cups even exist without it? Would the LPGA be promoting Pressel and Paula Creamer (and, until her slump, Brittany Lincicome) so hard and working so hard to get Michelle Wie to want to join the tour without it? Would there be 10 entrants from Sweden in the Open if not for Annika Sorenstam? 32 from South Korea if not for the Se Ri Pak effect? Would there be a weekly half-hour feature on Ai Miyazato in Japan if nationalism didn't matter? (To be sure, this hasn't yet translated into an Ai-chan effect on the LPGA, as only two Japanese golfers qualified for the Open besides Ai-chan, Momoko Ueda, and Sakura Yokomine, who got in through exemptions [the 3rd JLPGA exemption, by the way, went to a Korean, Mi-Jeong Jeon], but we may see a mini-wave soon.)

Still, it seems to me that Pressel's language and body language during the interview suggest a different kind of American nationalism, one that treats the older discourses of nationalism as a little awkward, embarrassing, even rude, while still feeling and acting entirely American. Pressel was so ready to move on to the next question and let her clubs do the talking. Winning your own national championship means even more when the best in the world want to do the same, Pressel seemed to be hinting. It's not a choice between nationalism or globalization any more--it's both/and.

There's more to be said about sports as a metaphor and model for all kinds of international competition, the way in which the metaphor of competition gets applied to the business world, and the way the business and sports worlds are so thoroughly intertwined, but for now let's just enjoy the golf and watch how it's framed.


sag said...

Nowadays the top players can make more money, possibly much more, from endorsements than from tournament winnings. The difference in Pressel from a few years ago is that now she's more aware of how much money she can make by becoming a corporate pod-person. When the camera is on, the bubbly, feisty, motormouth persona of her teenage years is long gone. RIP. :-(

The Constructivist said...

Which is another sad effect of globalization, IMHO. I'm sre Tiger is much more interesting in person, too.