LPGA Commissioner defends Women’s Open champion’s limited exemption
When Sophia Popov became the Cinderella story of the year last week, coming out of nowhere to win the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon, many golf fans were surprised to learn that because she was not a full LPGA member at the time of her win, she was not entitled to receive the full five-year LPGA Tour exemption that is bequeathed upon major champions, nor is she eligible to play in the season’s next major, the ANA Inspiration, which was postponed until September.
The outcry over the seeming injustice was so great that LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan personally addressed the issue in a taped statement from this week’s LPGA Tour stop at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship.
“Let’s start with this,” Whan begins. “I’m a fan. Like you, I sat on my couch, I cried when she won. It was powerful, and she’s special.”
Whan explained that he’s received multiple inquiries regarding why Popov will not be exempted into the upcoming ANA field, and why Popov’s LPGA exemption can’t be extended from the two she was granted as a non-member to the five she would have been entitled to as a member.
Whan started by addressing the ANA, which finalized its field back in March prior to the Covid-19 shutdown. Players who earned exemptions into the 2020 ANA are still waiting to use them, Whan said, and that includes the qualifiers from last year’s AIG Women’s Open.
“This year’s AIG Women’s Open, they’re going to win their way into the 2021 ANA Inspiration,” Whan says. “You don’t have to like that, you don’t have to agree with me on that. But when we set that field, we don’t go back and change that field later.”
Regarding the exemption-length criticism, Whan says it would be unfair to change the rules for Popov.
“I’ve been commissioner for 11 years. I’ve seen plenty of non-member wins at majors,” Whan says. “I’ve seen almost all of those non-member winners go on to long and storied careers on the LPGA.”
Whan did concede that he’s willing to reassess the current regulations in the offseason.
“Maybe we should feel different about non-member major wins, period,” Whan muses. “I definitely look at that. What I won’t do is change a regulation in the middle of the season. That’s not the right way to run a sport, and quite frankly not the fairest way to treat your athletes.
“I hope this doesn’t take away, for all of us, what Sophia deserves, which is an incredible win, an incredible opportunity that she’s earned. And I’m quite certain that Sophia, like others that have come before her, will turn that opportunity into a long-term career.”
You can watch the full video of Whan’s comments below.