LPGA Tour: Open to open amid controversy

Brian Heard Women's Golf Reporter
Ah yes, the big one, the granddaddy of ’em all, The U.S. Women’s Open; been around longer than the LPGA itself – 1946 to be exact.

The top players in the world will be there, right? Man, it’s fun to sit around and try to pick a winner from that kind of field. You’d have to mention Lorena Ochoa, who’s bound to win this sooner or later, and no one’s playing much better than Jiyai Shin. Cristie Kerr’s not a bad option. And you know who’s playing really well, Michelle Wie; and Natalie Gulbis could be a sleeper pick.

What did you say? Wie and Gulbis aren’t in the field? What, they didn’t qualify?

Oh that’s right, Wie is ranked 25th in the world and is 12th on the LPGA Tour money list, but she did not get an automatic exemption, like so many other pros, for the U.S. Open. No, she had to play a qualifier in April to get in and she didn’t happen to play well that day. Same deal for Gulbis, who’s 33rd on the money list and 39th in the world.

Both are among the biggest draws in women’s golf, but neither is at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., this week.

Wendy Ward, 28th on the money list, won’t be there either, nor will exciting rookie Vicky Hurst, 42nd on the list. But there will be 29 amateurs and plenty of other names you’re probably not familiar with.

This would not have happened to the same degree a year ago. With the shortening of the LPGA schedule, the USGA, which runs the U.S. Open (the LPGA has no say about who’s in and who’s not) made a change in its exemption standard.

The USGA, which does not consult the World Rankings in its selection process for the Women’s Open (unlike the men’s open), formerly exempted the top 40 players on the money list from the previous season and the top 35 on the money list of the current season as of June 1 (Hurst was in the top 35 as of June 1 this season). This year, in what’s really a radical departure, they took the top 50 on the money list from last year and only the top 10 from this year (again as of June 1).

“The women used to play 15 events [by June 1],” said USGA deputy executive director Mike Butz in an article on the Golf Channel’s Web site. “There was a question whether it was right to exempt the top 35 off just 11 events. … Obviously, we want the world’s best players in the field, but that can become a subjective issue.”

The USGA also said the change in policy ensures that only the most consistently good golfers get in.

Oh really? So if a golfer finished 50th on the money list a year ago, but was 100th this year, she’d get in – that’s consistent? But rookies like Wie and Hurst, who have performed well (in Wie’s case exceptionally well) during the only time frame in which they’re being judged don’t. Yeah, that makes sense.

And, talk about consistent. Certain players can get in by playing really well at a one-day qualifier.

Expect a change in policy for next year.

Enough of that, let’s enjoy the tournament.

My pick (I know you’ve been frothing at the mouth in anticipation): Seon Hwa Lee (pronounced sun huh-wah lee). Yep, the talented 23-year-old former LPGA Rookie of the Year (in 2006) has yet to break through to the winner’s circle on the LPGA Tour, but has been playing well of late, and has a decent track record at the Majors. Plus, her nickname in Korea is the Stone Buddha – hard to pick against that.

Players want Bivens out

Again, it would be nice to just enjoy the U.S. Open. But there’s more controversy raging.

Seems like the rank and file of the LPGA is starting to get mighty restless with the seemingly weekly sponsorship defections the Tour is experiencing – though players were reportedly told a month ago by Tour officials that contracts with 10 new title sponsors had been signed for 2010.

Nevertheless, two weeks ago, the Kapalua event in Hawaii asked for a year off from its five-year contract (this would have been the second year of it) in order to find a title sponsor. Instead of being sympathetic in these tough economic times, the LPGA threatened legal action to hold Kapalua liable for the remaining four years. But Kapalua is saying it can’t hold the tournament in October.

That means the tour is down seven events since 2007. It could get even worse. Contracts are up with longtime sponsors at the Jamie Farr near Toledo, Ohio, and the Wegmans in Rochester, N.Y. – two longtime sites. And it seems like the Tour could lose the Michelob Ultra event in Richmond, Virginia too.

Twenty-seven-year-old Tour player Katherine Hull, ranked 18th on the money list this year, told Golfweek magazine that tensions among the players “are mounting every week.”

“We’re getting to the point where we don’t know who to believe, which is hard,” Hull said. “When tournaments that have been very loyal to us start withdrawing, that’s really a red flag to me.”

Players are getting nervous that the ship is about to sink, and they want a new captain.

Up to 15 of the top players on Tour, including Lorena Ochoa, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Morgan Pressel and Natalie Gulbis met last week before the start of the Jamie Farr and signed a letter that was sent to the LPGA Tour’s board asking for the resignation of commissioner Carolyn Bivens, who has two years remaining on her contract. Bivens is a member of the board.

So far, neither the LPGA or Bivens have commented on the situation.

Stay tuned.

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