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Lynch: Sophia Popov's exclusion from CME isn't Natalie Gulbis' fault; it's 'technically' her own

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After years of not making news while playing, Sophia Popov now finds herself in the unusual position of generating headlines for not playing.

The 28-year-old German knows something of the hard knocks that attend a life in professional golf. She almost quit the game in 2019, but decided to plow the lonely furrow of life on tour for another year. Her resilience was rewarded with a couple of victories earlier this year on the Cactus Tour and then an improbable major championship win in the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon in August.

The kerfuffle in which Popov currently finds herself concerns the LPGA’s season-ending CME Group Tour Championship, which begins Thursday in Naples, Florida. The woman who won a major four months ago will have to watch the action from her couch across town since she’s not eligible to compete.

Let’s try explaining this over the din of muskets being loaded on Twitter.

In a typical year, the top 60 point-earners on the LPGA tour qualify for the season finale. In this most atypical year, the field for the tournament was expanded to 72 players. For the first (and apparently last) time, two of those spots were reserved for sponsor’s exemptions. Since Popov wasn’t an LPGA Tour member when she won the Open, her points from Troon didn’t count. So she didn’t make the top 60. Or the top 70. Nor did she receive one of those exemptions.

Eamon Lynch

The invitations went to Sarah Kemp, who is a CME Group ambassador, and to Natalie Gulbis, who isn’t. But Gulbis is a friend of CME Group chief executive Terry Duffy, and that’s sufficient.

“I’ve known Natalie since 2005, when I did my first event with clients,” Duffy told my Golfweek colleague Beth Ann Nichols, going on to note that she was instrumental in his sponsoring the tournament.

Gulbis has made just six starts this year, missing five cuts, withdrawing once and bettering par once. It’s a tally that justifies her announcement that she would retire after the 2020 season. The pandemic pushed that plan back a year (apparently the departure of a one-time winner demands fans lining the ropes). Popov has as good a shot of winning the CME Group Tour Championship while sitting on her couch as Gulbis does actually competing. But both have earned the spot in which they find themselves. That’s the less-than-appealing reality of sports sponsorship.

Had the points Popov earned for her major win counted, she would be in the field for Naples at 16th in the standings.

But they didn’t count, so she finished 82nd and outside the cut. “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,” Popov told Golfweek.

As we all learned in the schoolyard, anyone qualifying their position with “technically” is usually on shaky ground, and “fairness” is an awfully precarious hill upon which to stake a claim in sport, because “technically” Popov didn’t earn it. She didn’t play her way into the original 60, didn’t play her way into the expanded 70, and shouldn’t assume an entitlement to one of those sponsor invites.

Natalie Gulbis

Natalie Gulbis is in the field for this week’s CME Group Tour Championship due to a sponsor exemption, while recent major winner Sophia Popov is not. 

The rules don’t cease to be the rules simply because a competitor and their social media supporters feel they are being treated unfairly, a thesis withstanding most places beyond 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

That the field in Naples would be enhanced by Popov’s presence is undeniable. She authored what might be the best story in golf in an otherwise miserable year. But sponsor exemptions — even those questionably added to a supposedly elite event amid a pandemic — are decided by the golden rule: them what has the gold, makes the rules.

This is an argument over the 70 spots, not the other two. CME Group is wholly entitled to extend its exemptions based on corporate loyalties. With any tournament invitation, there are always more deserving players. But these invitations are not designed for the deserving nor subject to sentiment. And they are certainly not based on fairness. A Lim Kim, who won the U.S. Women’s Open on Sunday, is also not in the field this week since she is not an LPGA tour member.

Much of the frothing on social media seems less about the fact that Popov is out than that Gulbis is in. That’s fair enough. Her 2007 win at the Evian Masters is the only thing that separates Gulbis from being golf’s equivalent of Anna Kournikova, a famously winless but decidedly winsome ‘90s tennis star who launched many an internet search in lonely college dorms. And there’s nothing like the spectacle of a major champion sitting at home while a washed-up one-timer gets a spot in a big-time event during the waning days of her career.

But the fact that golf finds itself in yet another needlessly awkward storyline is not the fault of CME Group or Gulbis. The sponsor is within its purview to extend the invite and Gulbis was within hers to accept.

The harsh reality of competitive sport is that only one person could have guaranteed Popov a place in the field this week — herself.

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2020/12/15/sophia-popov-natalie-gulbis-cme-championship/

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