I’ve had a few days to mull over the new LPGA standards for tournament eligibility which go into effect in 2009. Since the memo I’ve linked to describes each category in detail, I’ll try to just concentrate on what those details mean and determine why they were defined that way.
The current process only determined whether a player was “exempt”, “non-exempt” or “conditional”. Despite the fact that “non-exempt” and “conditional” players did have priority placing within their groups, there was no varying degree of status from one exempt player to another. As far as the official rules were defined, Shanshan Feng had just as much right to enter an event as Paula Creamer. On at least one occasion this year (the Stanford International Pro-Am), there weren’t enough slots in the field to accommodate all of the exempt players. Tour officials had to devise a makeshift method that week to determine who made the field. I believe this inconsistency (plus the possibility that more “less than full-field” events are in the LPGA’s future) required the Tour to develop a comprehensive priority process.
Category 1 is simply, the Top 80 players from this year’s LPGA money list. If a field is limited to only 60 LPGA Tour members (like the Asian events), player #25 can play if she wishes while #80 will have to hope that 20 players above her elect not to. In most cases, a Category 1 player will be able to play when she chooses.
There is also a Category 1a, which covers any player who was in the Top 40 of the 2007 money list who isn’t in the 2008 Top 80. The players who currently would be classified 1a are Brittany Lincicome (85), Meaghan Francella (90), Laura Davies (91), Julieta Granada (102), Sherri Steinhauer (103), Reilley Rankin (104) and Sarah Lee (129). That means 87 players will be classified 1 or 1a unless some of these seven move up. Na On Min is currently at #80 so if she slips back she will join the 1a group. Pat Hurst (55) is the next lowest-ranked player in the Top 80 who is 1a-eligible, so it isn’t likely that this group would be adding any members besides Min before the end of the year. This category will be replaced for 2010 by Category 12. I believe this transition year for the Top 40 was put in to avoid player backlash – the 2007 Top 40 were all promised exempt status through 2009 and Category 12 is a far cry from that, being below money list #100 and 20 Q-School qualifiers.
Category 2 is the special career money list Top 20 category. One time during a player’s career, she may choose to invoke Category 2 or 14 (the Career Top 40) to gain extra eligibility. A player who has already used one of these options (or a career money list option laid out in earlier LPGA by-laws) may not use either option. Lorie Kane and Liselotte Neumann are players who currently qualify for Category 2 who might need to invoke it within the next few years. Kudos to the LPGA for putting this group so high on the priority list. There will rarely be more than one or two players in this category anyway and keeping the field accessible for outstanding veteran players should be high on the Tour’s priority list.
Category 3 is for major champions. Bear in mind that if a player is already in a lower-numbered category, their priority is assigned there. If they fail to maintain that status but have won a major championship in the last five years, they will qualify here. Hilary Lunke, Birdie Kim and Grace Park will be Category 3 in 2009.
Category 4 is a new one and I like it a lot. Previous multi-win categories have focused on wins in the same season – this one will also help a player who wins in back-to-back seasons but struggles in the third. Assuming Category 1a was already gone, this is where Brittany Lincicome would land.
I like Category 5 too. It allows a lower-priority player to move up immediately if they win a tournament, rather than waiting until next year. We haven’t had a non-exempt player win in 2008 but if these new rules had been in effect, Louise Friberg would have moved here from Category 11 after her win in Mexico. This new in-season flexibility is a huge improvement in the process.
I’m going to skip over Categories 5a, 6 and 7 as they are existing policies and they will continue on as before. Category 8 is much like #5 – the current Top 40 money list will allow players to improve their priority in-season. The memo explains it in detail. Category 9 is the top 5 Futures Tour players from the previous season.
Category 10 could be called the Michelle Wie Category since she made it well-known trying to get her card by making money as a non-member. Any such player who earns more than player #80 in ”official LPGA co-sponsored domestic tournaments with fields of 75 or more” goes into this group. Note that the British, Evian and Asian events are excluded from the events a non-member can use to add to her total. As far as I can ascertain, the U.S. Open is a co-sponsored event so any money won there would be counted. But does “domestic” include Canada or Mexico? Strictly speaking, the answer would be “no” but who knows? The definition of this category is just as muddy as it was before.
Category 11 is the combination of the top 20 Q-School qualifiers and players 81-100 on the money list. These 40 players give us a total pool of between 140 and 145 players in Categories 1 through 11. Assuming that full-field events continue with 144 available slots, this makes Category 11 “the Promised Land” for an up-and-comer. The players at the bottom end of this category would be the first ones pushed out of events as Categories 5 and 8 start gaining members. Note that this means a player only needs to finish in the Top 100 of the money list to start the next season in good position, but by making the Top 80, the player doesn’t necessarily have to get the new season off to a good start to stay there.
As I mentioned earlier, Category 12 will be the replacement for 1a beginning in 2010. Category 13 has been referred to as the “battlefield promotion” group as any player who wins three times during a Futures Tour season will immediately be placed there. Given a normal amount of absences, a 13 should be able to make a full-field event. Category 14 I touched on with Category 2.
Category 15 is where players start getting left out of tournament fields regularly. Players 101-125 on the money list equate to the current “non-exempt” group and only get into fields which many of the top players skip (this year’s Corona, MasterCard, State Farm and Corning, for example). Category 15a has a cryptic quality to it. What it basically means is - for the next two years, any player who has won an official LPGA event in the last twenty years goes here. Beginning in 2011, these players fall to Category 19. When that happens, those tournament spots that Jan Stephenson and Michelle McGann have been getting are going to become scarce.
Category 16 are players 21-30 from Q-School. Category 17 are players 6-10 from the Futures Tour. Category 18 is an interesting one – any player who has won more than once in her LPGA career will go here if she has finished in the money list Top 80 at any time in the last three years. This will give such a player priority over any Category 19 players starting in 2011. To this point, the player count is approximately 180. Needless to say, the players in Categories 19, 20 (Q-School 31-40) and 21 (Class A members) aren’t going to make many events.
Four times during the year, the players in Categories 14 through 20 will be re-ordered by their current money list standing. After events #7, 14, 21 and 28, this re-ordering will reward good performances with higher priority. While reaching the top of this order will help a player get into more events, she will still be outside “the Promised Land” (Category 11). Note that any player who uses that one-time-only Category 14 option is included in this shuffle so if that player starts the season slowly, their priority could drop so far that they might not get as many opportunities to play as they originally thought.
Medical, maternity and family leave extensions are mentioned in the memo but only in respect to 2009. I assume those extensions will remain available but wouldn’t want to guess how a player’s priority would be assigned.
10 positions in each full-field event will be reserved for five special categories (two positions each) – Hall of Fame members (Nancy Lopez gets to keep playing!), sponsor exemptions, local qualifying, late entries, and the previous week’s Top 10. If any of those positions go unclaimed, they are given to the next player in the priority line. One of the “late entries” examples is “the winner of the immediately preceding…tournament” which, if I understand correctly, should qualify that player for Category 5 so they wouldn’t need the special entry spot. Maybe I’m missing something there.
The process isn’t as helter-skelter as it may look. Assigning each player their own priority level actually makes it easier (for me, anyway) to understand how the tournament fields get filled out, and the in-season advancement opportunities are a great improvement over the previous by-laws. The committee that developed these seems to have done a good job, in my opinion. There is still vagueness in some areas, but the structure is a sound one. It remains to be seen whether that new structure is a preface to any other changes, such as size adjustments to full-field events.