Two of this year’s major champions won’t be in the field this week at the CME Group Tour Championship.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the field for the LPGA’s season finale was expanded from 60 to 72 players, with the addition of two sponsor exemptions. Those extra spots went to Sarah Kemp, one of CME Group’s two tour ambassadors, and Natalie Gulbis.
Left out was Sophia Popov, who won the AIG Women’s British Open in August but was not an LPGA member at the time of her victory. As a result, she did not receive the 625 points typically awarded to the winner, and at No. 82 in the final standings, she did not qualify for the season-ender. (Had her points counted, she would have been 16th.)
Tweeted Popov, who recently moved to Naples, site of this week’s event at Tiburon:
Newly crowned U.S. Women’s Open champion A Lim Kim also didn't qualify, since she won the tournament as a non-member. She can accept a two-year tour membership beginning in 2021.
CME Group chairman and chief executive Terry Duffy told Golfweek that he chose Gulbis because he has known her since 2005 and Gulbis was instrumental in his decision to title-sponsor the event. Gulbis had said at the start of the year that she would retire at the end of 2020, but she told the Toledo Blade that she would come back for another year in 2021 to play in front of the fans one last time.
“I think it would have been a bittersweet last year,” she said back in August.
In six tournaments this year, Gulbis has missed five cuts and, in her most recent start, last month at the Pelican Women’s Championship, withdrew following an opening 79.
Of the decision, Popov told Golfweek that she was shocked: “It’s a fairness thing, as far as playing ability. It’s not like I haven’t earned it. It’s like I have earned it points-wise, technically.”
The decision to offer sponsor exemptions is for this year only. Next year, the season finale will return to a 60-player field, based strictly off the season-long Race to the CME Globe standings.
The CME Group Tour Championship offers the biggest prize in women’s golf, with $1.1 million to the winner.