Perhaps the best story in golf this year was Sophia Popov’s out-of-nowhere victory at the AIG Women’s Open two weeks ago. In the aftermath, however, her win appears to have shed light on a flaw in the LPGA Tour’s exemption system.
Popov, who missed out on LPGA Tour status by one shot at the circuit’s Qualifying Series last October, only earned status on the lower-level Symetra Tour, effectively not making her eligible for LPGA Tour member benefits that came from her major championship victory, ie. a five-year exemption on the big Tour.
LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan made a matter-of-fact case about the rules being the rules, seemingly intimating that they’re aware there was a hole in their bylaws and that they’ll revisit it in the offseason.
— LPGA (@LPGA) August 28, 2020
In their coverage of the story, Golf Channel’s two-man cast of Rich Lerner and Brandel Chamblee broke down not only Popov’s exemptions, but Chamblee took professional golf to task for the overarching exemption system, which benefits players who may be past their primes.
“For nostalgic elements and for ceremonial elements, at major championships, I get it,” Chamblee said, launching into his hypothetical commissioner for a day role. “But one of the worst rules in golf that the PGA Tour has — well, they have two of them: the top-50 and top-25 all-time money list exemption.
“If I were commissioner for a day, the very first thing I would do is get rid of those exemptions.”
These top-25 and top-50 exemptions allow players who have made the most money a free year (or two) an entire season on the PGA Tour based upon their past accolades and performance regardless of how they are playing currently.
Golf prides itself on being a meritocracy, but Chamblee’s point about exemptions is well made.
As Dylan Dethier at Golf.com pointed out, K.J. Choi, who is 29th in career earnings continued to play on the PGA Tour this season after a Major Medical Extension ran out by virtue of his top-50 all-time earnings. There are plenty of other examples as well.
“The sport is meant to be about what you can do right now,” Chamblee continued. “Who can play the best. And if you can’t make [the Tour], you shouldn’t be on it.
“If you win the Cy Young Award one year, are you guaranteed five years on the starting mound? Of course not! If your play falls off or your throwing ability falls off precipitously, you’re on the bench or you’re in the minor leagues!”
As for the impetus of the argument, Popov, Chamblee believes this bump in the road will be just that, and she won’t need to rely on an exemption to earn status.
“Of course you alluded to (Popov’s) accomplishments in college golf,” Chamblee said to Lerner, “but even talking to Jimmy Walker about his dealings with Lyme disease, (which Popov had) and how bad it’s been for his game, to see her overcome that ailment and then to reach that sort of potential that was predicted of her in college, it’s a great storyline.
“If she’s half as good as we saw at the Open Championship, she will be exempt well into the next five years.”