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USGA takes steps to strengthen Open field

PHOENIX -- The goal, according to USGA officials, has always been to have the strongest fields at their championship events. To that end, the association announced changes to exemption categories for several of national championships that are intended to bolster the level of competition in the tournaments.

For the USGA's marquee event, the U.S. Open, the emphasis will continue to move away from positions on money lists and toward placement on world rankings. Starting this year, an exemption category will be added for the U.S. Open that guarantees spots in the field for the top 50 on the World Ranking as of the Monday prior to the championship. This category would be in addition to one that includes the top 50 on the World Ranking prior to sectional qualifying (in 2011 that date is May 23).

fowler_470.jpgRickie Fowler was among those players left out of the 2010 U.S. Open because of flaws in eligibility standards. The USGA has sought to remedy the system (Photo by Getty Images).

According to Tom O'Toole, chairman of the USGA championship committee, the new category will allow golfers who play well in the weeks immediately prior to the Open not to be excluded from the major championship because of logistical timing of the cutoff required for sectional qualifying. O'Toole noted how such a fate happened to both Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler last year, as the two players were both outside the top 50 in the World Ranking before sectional qualifying but moved inside the number the week prior to the championship at Pebble Beach.

Starting in 2012, the USGA will eliminate full exemptions based on money lists for the PGA Tour, European Tour and various other pro tour around the world. "Trying to evaluate the strength of one tour against another has become increasingly difficult for the USGA as the game has grown globally," said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions. "Utilizing the Official World Golf Ranking will eliminate the subjective task that the USGA annually faced."

The same idea will apply for the U.S. Women's Open in the future, said Davis, although the USGA is holding off allocating more spots to players off the Rolex Women's Rankings in the short term.

"We are not quite ready to do so at this time," Davis said, "and believe that the ranking system, which is currently going through some evaluation and improvement, will be a very solid indicator of the best women players in the world in the next year or two. The men's world ranking existed for some 10 years before the USGA adopted them for the U.S. Open so a delay for us to get totally comfortable with the system is not unprecedented."

In the meantime, the USGA will expand its full exemptions into the U.S. Women's Open for players off the LPGA Tour money list from the top 50 to the top 70 for 2011. The decision will reduce the number of spots allocated to sectional qualifying by roughly 30 but ultimately will help strength the championship's field.

"We still reserve an ample number of spots for qualifiers," said Davis, noting that the U.S. Open has about 80 spots for sectional qualifiers with a pool of more than 9,000 entries and the Women's Open will have about 60 spots for a pool of about 1,000 entries.

"We are absolutely committed to preserving our long-standing approach to open qualifying for all USGA championships," Davis said. "The USGA desires the best players from around the world in its championships, but that desire must allow for a fair system to players who wish to go through sectional qualifying."

Rankings are also at the heart of several new exemption categories for the USGA's amateur championships thanks to a partnership announced between the association and the R&A regarding the latter's World Amateur Golf Ranking. The two governing bodies will jointly oversee both the men's ranking, in existence since 2006, and the newly created women's ranking set to launch this month.

In conjunction, starting in 2011 the USGA will provide full exemptions into all its men's amateur events to the top 50 in the World Amateur ranking as of the close of entries. The same will occur for the women's amateur at a later date after the women's world ranking has time to develop and be reviewed.

-- Ryan Herrington

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