News & Opinion

LPGA stymies Sophia Popov with arcane rule

Sophia Popov wins 2020 Women's British Open
Sophia Popov, who won the Women’s British Open on Aug. 23 at Royal Troon in Scotland, was surprised to learn that she did not earn a 5-year LPGA exemption with the victory but wins tour status merely through 2021.

The women’s tour stubbornly clings to a regulation that denies Popov, who was not an LPGA member when she won the Women’s British Open recently, a 5-year exemption. That’s not how the other tours operate, so the LPGA should fix its rule now

It didn’t take long for Sophia Popov’s bubble to burst over what has come to light as a regulatory snag at the LPGA.

All you had to do is follow Twitter last week to learn that Popov, a U.S.-born German who is the newest member of golf’s major-championship club, had been thrown a nasty curveball.

Popov, an improbable winner of the recent Women’s British Open in one of the year’s greatest feel-good stories, was denied the customary five-year tour exemption upon winning a major championship. The reason: She was not a tour member and thus granted LPGA exempt status only through 2021.

For the sake of comparison, the PGA and European tours extend to any major champion a five-year exemption, with no exceptions or membership caveats.

The LPGA, as it turns out, does not have the same compassion as the men’s tours. I use the word compassion, because the understanding about how hard it is to win a major title seems to be lost on the powers-that-be at the LPGA.

In a video statement Wednesday, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan stated that it was not the first time that an LPGA non-member has won a major title on his watch. Among them: Hinako Shibuno (2019 Women’s British Open), In Gee Chun (2015 U.S. Women’s Open) and Hyo Joo Kim (2014 Evian Championship).

“You may not like that regulation,” Whan said in the video. “And I’ll be the first to admit I’m going to think about that in the off-season, which is when we reassess all of our regulations.”

But, why has it taken so long to look at the regulation?

Whan never explained the reason behind the regulation, but it’s clear why: to protect the current membership.

It all has come to light because Popov is such a popular winner.

Not only did she jump from relative obscurity at No. 304 in the Rolex Rankings to major champion and 24th in the world, the biggest move ever in the rankings, but she was followed for much of the weekend TV coverage. She became a celebrity for many viewers as she never faltered.

When the world learned that Popov was denied a five-year exemption on a tour on which she had lost her member status last year by one stroke at the LPGA's Q-Series and now competed on the developmental Symetra Tour, the reaction was swift.

Why hadn’t the LPGA – specifically, Whan, who is in his 11th season heading the tour – taken a hard look at this unfair and discriminatory regulation? It should have been corrected after Kim’s 2014 Evian victory.

It’s a regulation that doesn’t belong in modern sports, especially on a tour with a global reach and worldwide schedule, generating significant sponsor and TV revenue outside the U.S.

Though the regulation was not addressed after the major victories of Kim, Chun or Shibuno, those events didn’t create the same buzz as Popov’s breakthrough.

So, now the world is watching for whether the LPGA will do the right thing.

Whan said in his video statement that he didn’t believe it was proper to rewrite the tour’s regulations during the year. However, there is precedent to make changes midyear.

Remember the Lexi Thompson incident at the 2017 ANA Inspiration, when a call from a TV viewer pointed to a rules infraction in the third round? Thompson was assessed four strokes in penalties the next day.

Within a month, the USGA and R&A issued Decision 34-3/10: “Limitations on Use of Video Evidence.”

Two organizations not known for moving quickly needed only three weeks to change the Rules of Golf.

For Whan and the LPGA, the clock is ticking to give Popov and the others adversely affected by this grossly unfair regulation some relief and five years of membership.

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