After an exciting Monday finish at the U.S. Women’s Open, the spotlight stays on women’s golf for a second straight week as the LPGA Tour gets set to host its 2020 season finale, the CME Group Tour Championship. However, it will do so without two of this year’s four major champions competing in the event where the winner earns a LPGA high $1.1 million.
Due to a unique set of circumstance that begins with COVID-19 pandemic, new U.S. Women’s Open champion A Lim Kim and Women’s British Open winner Sophia Popov will not be playing at Tiburón Golf Club in Naples, Fla., as neither qualified for the limited-field event off the season-long Race to the CME Globe points list. To make it to the LPGA’s final event of 2020, golfers had to be in the top 70 in the standings.
How exactly could the winners of two of the biggest tournaments held in 2020 not earn enough points? Well, neither Kim, a 25-year-old from South Korea, or Popov, a 28-year-old from Germany, was a member of the LPGA Tour at the time of their victories. As such, neither player earned the 625 points awarded to major winners in the Race to the CME Globe standings.
After her out-of-nowhere victory at Royal Troon, Popov, ranked No. 304 in the world when she won, accepted LPGA membership and has since been trying to accumulate enough points to qualify for the Tour Championship. But she could only earn 282 in her seven remaining starts, leaving her in 82nd position. Had she been able to count the points from the British Open win, she would have been in the top 20 in the standings.
In October, LPGA officials announced changes to the CME Group Tour Championship qualifying, expanding the field from its traditional 60 players to the top 70 off the points list to accommodate more players. They also announced creation of two sponsor’s exemptions available for 2020 only. The thought among many was that one of those exemptions would be extended to Popov if she did not manage to qualify.
However, CME officials announced last week that the two sponsor’s spots were going to LPGA Tour veterans Natalie Gulbis and Sarah Kemp. Gulbis played in six events in 2020, missing the cut in five and withdrawing after the first round in the other. Kemp, who is a CME ambassador, played in 13 events and was 100th on the points list. The decision on who receives the exemption is at the discretion of the title sponsor.
It’s not just Kim and Popov who will be notable names missing from the field at Tiburón. Japan’s Hinako Shibuno and South Korea’s Jeongeun Lee6, both on the leader board at the U.S. Women’s Open this past weekend, also aren’t playing. Shibuno, like Kim and Popov, is not an LPGA Tour member. Lee6 is, but played mostly in her native South Korea due to the pandemic, even after the LPGA restarted play in July. She came over to the U.S. in the fall and entered five events but finished 83rd on the Race to the CME Globe points list.
Jin Young Ko, the No. 1 ranked player in the world, appeared as if she too might be on the outside looking in at Naples. Ko only came over to the States in November and played in just three LPGA events. But with her T-2 finish at the U.S. Women’s Open, she jumped from 103rd to 43rd on the points list and snuck into the Tour Championship field.