Commissioner Mike Whan stands by controversial decisions not to alter LPGA regulations to accommodate Sophia Popov


Sophia Popov poses with the trophy following victory in the final round of the 2020 AIG Women's Open at Royal Troon.

Jan Kruger

Sophia Popov of Germany became a major champion and a cause celebre, all in a matter of days, when it was revealed that her improbable victory in the AIG Women’s British Open on Sunday earned her only a two-year LPGA exemption rather than five and no exemption into the next women’s major, the ANA Inspiration in two weeks.

LPGA Commissioner Mike Whan acknowledged the social media uproar that included Tommy Fleetwood calling it “stupid” and Ian Poulter “absolutely embarrassing to the LPGA and to the game of golf.”

But Whan stood by the decisions in a video statement he made at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship on Friday afternoon.

“As it relates to the 2020 ANA Inspiration, we set that field back in March right before we thought we were going to play,” he said. “We did that for one reason. We wanted to make sure that anyone who has qualified to play in this year’s ANA Inspiration was set. You couldn’t play your way out of it now after restarts and COVID stops. Anything that happens after we set that field, we’ll address in future years. I’m pretty sure that’s the same as the Masters. They set their field back in March, April, and now if you win a tournament on the PGA Tour you’re qualifying for the 2021 Masters, not the November 2020 Masters.”

LPGA members, meanwhile, are given a five-year exemption by winning a major championship. Popov, a member of the Symetra Tour, had not yet earned LPGA membership when she won the Women’s Open at Royal Troon last Sunday.

“With regards to two years [exemption] versus five years, I keep getting these texts and emails saying, ‘this has never happened before, Mike. Come on. You’re smarter than this,’” Whan said.

He then noted that during his tenure as commissioner a non-member has won a major on three other occasions, most recently in the 2019 AIG Women’s Open, won by Hinako Shibuno.

“You may not like the regulation,” Whan said. “I’m going to think about that in the off season when we really assess all of our regulations. What I won’t do is change regulations in the middle of the season. What I won’t do is change the regulation on the Monday after an emotional win.

“I will look at that regulation long term because I think that’s a fair question. But I’m not going to do that in the middle of the year. I’m not going to do that on the Monday after. That’s not the right way to run a sport. And quite frankly not the fairest way to treat your athletes. When they tee it up on Monday they ought to know what those wins earn.”

Whan said he is a Popov fan, that he in fact “cried when she won.” It did not influence his decisions, however.

“I hope this doesn’t take away for all of us for what Sophia deserves, which is an incredible win and an incredible opportunity she’s earned," he said. "And I’m quite certain that Sophia, like others that have come before, will turn that opportunity into a long-term career.”