Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Make-or-Break Time

Yes I’m back! Like the ladies, I took a week’s vacation. While I was out I did come up with an idea for what I think is a pretty good article.

There are two full-field events remaining in the 2006 LPGA season counting this week’s Longs Drugs. That means two more chances for players to gain exemptions for 2007. Until recently I was only vaguely aware of how players qualified for that status, but a little digging on lpga.com answered a few questions. There are also a couple of different levels of non-exempt status, but I’m not going to tackle that maze just yet. I’ll try to summarize how exemptions work.

The best way to get exempt? Win a tournament, of course. That will get you a three-year exemption – five years if you happened to win a major. Sherri Steinhauer’s British Open win means she can play whenever she wants through the 2011 season. She’ll be 48 then, so that win was a proverbial “set up for life” event for Sherri. If you win two times in a single season you get four years, and three or more wins guarantees five years.

The most common way players gain exemption is by finishing high on the money list. Top 40 status gains you the next two years, and the Top 90 are exempt for the next year. For example, Natalie Gulbis was in the Top 40 in 2005 so she is already guaranteed exempt status for 2007. She will finish Top 40 again this year so that will lock up 2008 for her as well.

The top five money winners on the Futures Tour are exempt for the following LPGA season. Kyeong Bae and Virada Nirapathpongporn (I’ve been looking for a good excuse to type her name!) qualified this way last year. Korean player Song-Hee Kim was the dominant player on the Futures circuit this year and should be fun to watch play with the big girls in ’07 (she’s only 18).

Then there is Q-School, or the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament. Last year the top 24 finishers in this stressful event (most notably Ai Miyazato, Julieta Granada, Morgan Pressel and Brittany Lang) gained exemption. I assume the same number will be “promoted” this year. I don’t have the dates on when Q-School will be, but I believe it will be mid-October.

There are also Medical Extensions, Tournament Regulations, and a special Top 40 Career Money List exemption that a player can use one time only (did you know Dottie Pepper was still exempt?). There is one qualifier on the exemptions page at lpga.com that I’m not sure about. Until 2002, any player with two or more career wins apparently got a multi-year (unspecified) exemption. Two players I mention below (Janice Moodie and Dorothy Delasin) have that listed by their names so it’s possible they may already be exempt for next year – the explanation isn’t clear enough to be sure so I’m assuming for this article that they are not already exempt for 2007.

Needless to say, September can be a very important time of year for the lesser LPGA members. The exempt players get to pick which tournaments they are going to enter next year and the non-exempt players get the leftovers, and I’m sure the tour has other perks that the exempts get over the nons. Winning one of these last two tournaments is a very tall order, so the order of business for most is to have a couple of good finishes to get into the Top 90. Diana D’Alessio has done just that over that last couple of events to move up to #62, making her a lock for 2007.

So who can relax and who should be worried? Given the two events left and the amount of prize money they offer, here is who I think falls into these categories:

Anyone ranked #82 or higher. Currently that position is held by Soo Young Moon, who is $22,500 ahead of #91 and $15,000 ahead of where I believe #91 will be after the next two weeks ($87,132 is my estimate for #91). Also, being ranked #82 means that nine players behind you have to pass you up. That would require those all of those nine players to either get a Top 10 or two Top 20 finishes to make up the $20,000 or so they need to get to #90 ($88,736 is my estimate for 90th place).

#83 Janice Moodie won’t be playing the next two weeks – she just had a baby. If eight players behind her make between $12,000-$20,000 she will be out of luck. That scenario doesn’t seem likely so I’ll say she should still make it. #84 Mikaela Parmlid, #85 Jamie Hullett, and #86 Beth Bader are in the field at Longs so if they make the cut they can probably move up to relaxed. I’m betting that one of these four will fall out of the Top 90.

#87 Mhairi McKay is only $6500 ahead of #91 and is sitting right on the line where I estimate #91 will be in two weeks. McKay, #88 Jackie Gallagher-Smith and #89 Dorothy Delasin all need to make a little more cash. #90 Jimin Kang is NOT in trouble – she won in 2005 so she’s exempt through 2008. At least one of the three Nervous Nellies will fall out and probably two of them.

#91 Johanna Head and #92 Alena Sharp. Must at least make the cut the next two weeks and really need a Top 20 finish to be safe. One thing is certain – if they can’t make either cut, they’ll have to go to Q-School. One of the two will probably make it.

#93 Nadina Light, #94 Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, and #95 Michelle Ellis. Either a Top 10 or two Top 20s are needed to cross my estimated cut line. I’ll put #96 Yu Ping Lin here also, but she needs over $16,000 to reach that cut line so she’ll need even better finishes. One of these four ought to make it.

From #97 (Ji Yeon Lee) down to #104 (Teresa Lu), a Top 5 finish would get it done, but a Top 10 probably would not. For this caliber of player, a Top 5 might not be a miracle, but it’s the next closest thing. I’ll go out on a limb and say one of the players in this group will qualify. Note: #102 Grace Park and #103 Birdie Kim are already exempt.

#106 on down must have a Top 5 or better if they aren’t already otherwise exempt (Nicole Perrot, Meg Mallon and Rosie Jones are among those already qualified). If any of these players finish second one time, the money will be enough to qualify and if they win they are automatically exempt for the next three years. I’m not expecting anybody in this category to make it.

To sum this massive posting up, I’m guessing that three of the players below #90 will gain exemption by finishing ahead of three players currently ranked #83 to #89. Yes, there will be a post-mortem to see how the contestants and I fared.

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