Golf doesn’t have an equivalent to the own goal, which is just as well for those who administer the second women’s major of the year. If such a straightforward comparison existed, the ANA Inspiration might have been subject to more candid criticism than has already been the case. Matters relating to Sophia Popov, golf’s player of the moment, depict a sport unwilling to help itself.
Popov delivered one of the finest stories of this sporting year when easing to Women’s Open glory at Royal Troon. She began the tournament as the world’s 304th-ranked player, her last payday had been as a caddie for a close friend and within the past 12 months the German had given serious consideration to retiring from the game. Popov’s tears and detailed depiction of earlier struggles added to the fairytale and should be embraced by a sport seeking to emerge from prehistoric attitudes.
Instead, the aftermath of the 27-year-old’s victory has been shrouded in the kind of bureaucratic piffle which turns people away from top-level sport. That fairytale has been lashed with a hammer.
Barring a dramatic and unforeseen change of heart by the organisers, when the ANA gets under way on 10 September Popov will be sitting at home. After this tournament was cancelled in April, the exemption criteria remained set. Popov couldn’t earn status through her Troon heroics because she was not an LPGA Tour member when performing them.
Popov seems far too pleasant a person to articulate what she really thinks of this debacle, whereby someone who has achieved so much is being treated as if guilty of a misdemeanour. “I was made aware of the fact immediately after my last round [at Troon],” said Popov, which rather raises questions of its own. “Considering the weird year, with the majors being postponed, I think everyone is in a tough position. As disappointed as I am, it is what it is. I have made peace with it. Yes, I’d love to play but it’s fine.”
Mike Whan, the LPGA’s commissioner, said: “We wanted to make [sure] anybody who was qualified was set, you couldn’t play your way in or out of it after restarts and Covid stops. We said that anything that happens after we set that field would be addressed in future years.” Popov’s ANA exemption is for 2021, just as those who qualified via last year’s Women’s Open are still waiting to play. “You don’t have to like or agree with me on that,” added Whan. Indeed.
The complications of the coronavirus-affected year should be lost on nobody. Yet here is a player who has turned heads across the world with an act of giant-killing, bringing – if one wants to be cynical – a level of interest sponsors typically lap up, who is being frozen out of a subsequent blue-chip event.
This is as extraordinary as it is shameful. Explanations relating to the make-up of the California draw are even further undermined by the fact a number of the top female players will not travel as they are based in Asia.
There is a parallel to this year’s Masters, which Whan emphasised. Daniel Berger admits to being “a little baffled” at missing out on an Augusta National invite, having risen to No 13 in the world. With all due respect to Berger, whether or not he appears in Georgia doesn’t carry the same broader significance as Popov being blocked from a major within a month of claiming one.
These are times to be flexible. Rules everyone recognised no longer exist across sport as people try to battle through unprecedented times. It would be no act of charity to afford Popov an ANA place; it would be obvious, correct thing to do.
There was a further blow to Popov as it emerged her Troon win would not trigger a five-year Tour exemption, again because she was not already a member. Ian Poulter labelled the situation “absolutely embarrassing” but it does at least follow precedent; the same happened to Hinako Shibuno a year ago.
It is telling that LPGA players have not queued up to voice displeasure at Popov’s treatment. Under the guidance of Whan, this tour has undergone a commercial transformation, to the benefit of competitors. If they, and others, pause for breath they will see major number two would be a better place for Popov’s involvement. There remains enough time to right a glaring wrong.