LPGA season finale missing major winners Popov, Kim

Two spots went to two sponsor exemptions, which didn't include Popov or Kim because they were not official LPGA members at the time of their wins and did not receive the points.

Two spots went to two sponsor exemptions, which didn't include Popov or Kim because they were not official LPGA members at the time of their wins and did not receive the points.   -  Getty Images

The LPGA's season-ending CME Group Tour Championship will be without two of the 2020 major tournament winners, AIG Women's British Open champion Sophia Popov of Germany and newly crowned U.S. Women's Open champ A Lim Kim of South Korea.

The field for this week's season finale, set to begin Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club in Naples, Fla., was expanded from 60 to 72 players due to the coronavirus pandemic and is based on a season-long points competition -- "The Race to the CME Globe" -- in which LPGA members accumulate points in every official tour event to gain entry into the season-ending Tour Championship.

Two of those spots went to two sponsor exemptions, which didn't include Popov or Kim because they were not official LPGA members at the time of their wins and did not receive the points. Instead, those exemptions went to Sarah Kemp, one of CME Group's two tour ambassadors, and Natalie Gulbis.

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"It's a fairness thing, as far as playing ability," Popov told Golfweek.

The 28-year-old Popov, who recently bought a home in Naples, finished No. 82 in the standings but would have been 16th if the AIG points had counted.

"It's not like I haven't earned it," she added. "It's like I have earned it points-wise, technically."

Terry Duffy, CME Group chairman and chief executive, told Golfweek he chose Gulbis because she was instrumental in his decision to title-sponsor the event. Duffy explained that originally, he wanted the two sponsor exemptions to go to CME's two ambassadors -- Cheyenne Knight and Kemp. When Knight qualified on her own, he chose Gulbis because of their longstanding association dating back to 2005.

At the start of 2020, the 37-year-old Gulbis announced she would retire at the end of the season. But in August, she told the Toledo Blade she would return for 2021 to play in front of the fans one last time.

"I think it would have been a bittersweet last year," she said.

In six starts this season, Gulbis has missed five cuts. She withdrew from her most recent start, at last month's Pelican Women's Championship, after opening with a 79. She's won just once since joining the tour in 2002 -- at the 2007 Evian Masters.

All 72 players in the field will compete in the 72-hole, no-cut competition, which features a $3 million purse with $1.1 million going to the winner and marking the largest winner's prize in 2020.

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"The decision to add sponsor exemptions for the CME Group Tour Championship is for this year only," said LPGA Chief Tour Operations Officer Heather Daly-Donofrio, who noted that sponsor-exemption decisions are at the discretion of each week's title sponsor, without input from the LPGA.

"In this abnormal 2020 year, the CME Group Tour Championship is slightly different than in the past, allowing more players in the field and offering two sponsor invites. In 2021, we expect to return to a 60-player field that is filled strictly off the Race for the CME Globe rankings."

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