Sophia Popov not playing the ANA Inspiration after her Women’s British Open victory was understandable. The ANA Inspiration was postponed until September because of the pandemic and, just like the Masters, decided to leave the field as if it were played the first week in April.
More curious is Popov, one of the more celebrated stories in women’s golf this year, not playing this week in the CME Group Tour Championship.
By the book, she didn’t qualify. The LPGA Tour only awards Race to CME Globe points to members, and Popov wasn’t eligible to be a full member until after her victory at Royal Troon.
Because of the pandemic-shortened season, the LPGA increased the field from the top 60 to the top 70 in points, along with awarding CME two sponsor exemptions. Popov played in seven tournaments that counted after winning her first major and finished at No. 82.
The title sponsor decided to give the two free spots to Sarah Jane Kemp and Natalie Gulbis. Kemp, who is at No. 100 on the Race to CME Globe, has an endorsement deal with CME. Gulbis has made one cut in 33 events over the last five years.
Terry Duffy, the chairman and CEO of CME Group, told Golfweek he wanted the two exemptions for his corporate ambassadors, Kemp and Cheyenne Knight, who wound up getting into the field on her own. He said wanted Gulbis because he has known her since 2005 and she was instrumental in CME deciding to be an LPGA title sponsor.
Sponsor exemptions are the right of the company footing the bill — a big bill, in this case — though it's rare when a player left out is a reigning major champion.
Until Monday, the Tour Championship didn’t have the No. 1 player in the world. Jin Young Ko stayed in South Korea during the pandemic to be with her family, and the U.S. Women’s Open was her third event of the year. She tied for second to move into the top 70.
Popov will have to watch from home, which in this case is in Naples, Florida, where the Tour Championship is played.
“It was a great year for me,” Popov said on the eve of the Women’s Open. “And it’s something that I would have loved to play CME just because it’s Naples, it’s my hometown, and every year I’ve been there watching the girls and watching my friends. I felt like this year I definitely deserved to be there, and I’m still not in.”
CME is a strong supporter of the LPGA Tour, offering the biggest paycheck ($1.1 million) of the year. But this decision to leave out one of the four major champions is likely to raise eyebrows during what should be a week of celebration.