Womens Open field comes under scrutiny

By Randall MellJuly 6, 2009, 4:00 pm
2009 U.S. WomenThe U.S. Womens Open begins this week with the strength of its field under scrutiny.
Michelle Wie and Natalie Gulbis didnt make it under the U.S. Golf Associations new exemption criteria. Neither did LPGA veteran Wendy Ward and rookie Vicky Hurst.
But 29 amateurs will tee it up when play begins Thursday at the Saucon Valley Country Clubs Old Course in Bethlehem, Pa.
When the USGA released its new exemption criteria earlier this year, red flags went up in the offices at the LPGA, an intensely interested bystander in the national championships makeup.
There were some top LPGA players and marquee names not in the field, and I voiced my concern about that, said Jane Geddes, the LPGAs senior vice president of tournament operations and player services. I understand that after you win a U.S. Womens Open, people dont ask you what the field was like, but Id like to believe that the U.S. Womens Open is one of the most prestigious championships, if not the most prestigious, and that you are competing against the best players at the moment. Im not sure this new criteria lends itself to that.
Geddes is a former LPGA player whose 11 titles include the 1986 U.S. Womens Open.
The U.S. Womens Open is conducted by the USGA. The LPGA had no input in how exemptions were devised, but Geddes role dictates that she protect the interests of LPGA players. She voiced concerns about the USGAs criteria when the new exemptions were released, before it became clear Wie, Gulbis and other LPGA members werent going to make the field.
What I voiced was less about the specifics of the criteria, more about the spirit of making sure we have the best field possible on a world stage, Geddes said. I know thats what the players want. Its my job to make sure the USGA knows what my opinion is.
The most significant changes to the USGAs new exemption criteria were in how it used the LPGAs money list.
Before this year, the USGA offered exemptions to the top 40 players on the season-ending money list from the previous year, plus the top 35 on the money list as of June 1 of the current year. This year, changes were implemented so that the top 50 off the final 2008 money list were exempt, plus the top 10 on the money list as of June 1, 2009.
Essentially, the changes meant more players from the previous year got exemptions with fewer getting them in the current year.
Obviously, we want the worlds best players in the field, but that can become a subjective issue, said Mike Butz, the USGAs deputy executive director.
Butz said the changes were designed to exempt the most consistently exceptional performers over a period of time.
With the shrinking womens schedule, USGA officials became concerned that the LPGA was playing just 11 regular events before the June 1 money list criteria kicked in for the current year. By comparison, the PGA Tour played 23 events prior to June 1.
The women used to play 15 events (by June 1), Butz said. There was a question whether it was right to exempt the top 35 off just 11 events.
If the USGA were still using top 35 in money from the current year, Wie, Gulbis, Ward and Hurst would have made the field.
Wies an LPGA rookie who didnt become a member until this year, but shes enjoying a solid first season. She tied for third Sunday at the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, her second consecutive top-10 finish and fifth of this season. Shes 12th on this weeks money list and ranked No. 25 in the Rolex Womens World Golf Rankings.
Gulbis is 33rd on the money list and 39th in the world rankings and top five among gate attractions.
I felt badly for our players, Geddes said. Certainly, Michelle Wie and Natalie Gulbis are two of our top players, not just marquee players.
We tend to error on the side of whos playing well now. By July, we can get a read on whos playing well now.
Wie, Gulbis, Ward and Hurst had chances to play their way into the U.S. Womens Open through sectional qualifiers but failed to advance.
The USGA uses the Official World Golf Ranking for men as part of its exemption criteria for the U.S. Open. Those rankings have evolved since their inception 23 years ago and become a widely accepted measure.
The Rolex Womens World Golf Rankings are not used by the USGA, mostly, Butz said, because theyre still so young. The womens rankings were implemented in 2006.
Had the USGA used the top 50 in the world rankings as of May 25 of the current year, as they do for the men, both Wie and Gulbis would be in this weeks U.S. Womens Open field, but new issues would be brought into play. Four Japanese LPGA players and a Korean LPGA player not currently exempt would bump somebody out.
Neither the USGA nor the LPGA is ready to implement the world rankings.
We have to go where we are more comfortable, but I would say we are getting closer (to using the world rankings), Butz said. Obviously, as we go through the year we will take a look at how it all plays out.
The USGA also made changes this year to only exempt top 15 finishers and ties from last years U.S. Womens Open. Previously, the top 20 and ties were exempt. Scotlands Catriona Matthew is the only player to lose a spot in the field based on that change, but Matthews presence was doubtful anyway. She gave birth in mid-May to her second child and has yet to tee it up in an event since the birth.
Butz said the USGA will re-examine its exemption criteria, as it does every year, when its Championship Committee meets in October.
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