LPGA commissioner Mike Whan denied 15-year-old Alexis Thompson’s petition for more sponsor exemptions on Friday, but he opened a new door that could allow Thompson and other non-members considerably more access to the tour.
While Whan said 'no' to Thompson’s unprecedented request for 12 sponsor exemptions, double what tour rules allow non-members, he announced the tour is changing its rules governing Monday qualifiers.
Beginning this year, Monday qualifiers will be open to non-members, where in the past only members were allowed to play, along with limited amateur participation (two amateurs per week, usually local players).
Whan told GolfChannel.com that the Monday qualifier change was in the works before Thompson’s petition but that the timing does create more opportunities for Thompson and players like her.
While Thompson was allowed to play no more than eight LPGA events under last year’s rules – six on sponsor exemptions and two by qualifying for the U.S. Open and Ricoh Women’s British Open – it’s possible she could play in as many as 15 tour events under the new rules. She and other non-members will be allowed to play in the seven Monday qualifiers that are planned so far this year.
“Our reaction is we’re satisfied,” said Bobby Kreusler, Thompson’s agent. “It’s certainly not exactly what we asked for, but this allows Lexi an opportunity to earn her way into tournaments that won’t count against her six sponsor exemptions. I wouldn’t say we are over the moon about it, because we asked for a certain type of relief, but the end result is that she could arguably end up playing in more tournaments than what we asked for as part of the petition.”
Thompson turns 16 in February and isn’t eligible to try to earn membership through Q-School. LPGA rules require that players be at least 18 years old to be tour members. Waivers of the age restriction can be granted at the discretion of the commissioner. Morgan Pressel and Aree Song were both granted waivers when they were 17.
Whan said he denied Thompson’s petition for 12 sponsor exemptions on philosophical reasons.
“At the real core of it, I really didn’t think I wanted to be the commissioner that created a new pathway to the LPGA that made young girls around the world think that as a freshman or sophomore in high school that they have a big decision to make,” Whan said. “I didn’t want to create this worldwide phenomenon where 14 year-olds are sitting in their living room and thinking, `high school or pro?’ It didn’t feel like it's the right thing to do. I know Lexi made a decision [to turn pro], and I’m fine with the decision, and I think it will turn out great for her.”
Whan said he’s also against the notion of creating limited membership, where a new category is created allowing 10 to 12 starts per year.
With sponsor exemptions, Thompson’s guaranteed a spot in a tournament field. But in Monday qualifying, there is no guarantee a player will advance into that week’s event. Monday qualifiers can be shootouts where typically dozens of players compete for two spots into that week’s tournament.
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“Monday qualifiers will be very competitive, and it will be very difficult for players to earn a spot,” Kreusler said. “But at least the opportunity is there now, and that’s important to us.”
Thompson, of Coral Springs, Fla., turned pro last year and won $336,472 in her limited LPGA appearances. Thompson would have ranked 34th on the LPGA money list if she were a tour member. She tied for second at the Evian Masters and tied for 10th at the U.S. Women’s Open. She first made her name as the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open and in winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the PGA Junior Girls championships.
“Lexi has remarkable skills for a 15-year-old, and if she continues to grow and develop, I believe that she should have a great future both on and off the golf course,” Whan said.
When Thompson first petitioned the tour for 12 sponsor exemptions, there was a strong backlash among veteran tour pros who didn’t like the idea that a non-member could enjoy more access and playing privileges than players who earned tour membership.
“Lexi hasn’t been given anything in her career,” Kreusler said. “It’s why we’re not upset with this. It requires Lexi to earn more starts. Nobody can really argue with you playing when you earned it.”