Thursday, July 09, 2009

BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) — With two of the LPGA Tour's marquee names missing from the field for the U.S. Women's Open, the USGA announced a change in its qualifying process for the 2010 event and explained how Michelle Wie and Natalie Gulbis missed out.

The USGA said Wednesday that it is moving from a two-stage qualifying process to a single stage.

Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition, said the change will help ensure the qualifying procedure is fair and balanced in terms of which players should and shouldn't have to play to qualify for the championship.

Currently, between 68 and 75 players are exempt into the field, and the USGA periodically reviews its exemption rules.

"We do that because we really want a fair balance between what players are good enough that they shouldn't have to play their way in through qualifying and then we want to keep that balance with all of our championships having a certain number that are out there that you can qualify for," he said.

"As long as you've got the handicap or the game to file an entry, you've got that dream."

The move to a single qualifying stage will be more efficient for the players and officials and help the USGA get qualifying sites, Davis said.

Davis prefaced his remarks by citing the absence of Wie and Gulbis, who failed to qualify under any of 10 criteria or receive a special exemption.

While the two have only one LPGA title combined, both are fan favorites and two of the most recognizable faces in women's golf. Wie ranks 12th in earnings in her rookie season with more than $435,000 in 11 events, and Gulbis is 33rd with more than $225,000.

Both tried and failed to qualify this year.

Davis said there was never any "serious consideration" given to giving Wie a special exemption.

The USGA changed its exemption policy for this year's championship:

-The low 15 scores and ties in the 2008 Women's Open earned a spot. Previously, the low 20 and ties clinched a spot the following year.

-The top five money winners on the Japan, European and Korean women's tours were exempt. That's up from three each.

-The top 50 money winners on the LPGA Tour from the previous season gained entrance, up from 40.

-The top 10 on the LPGA Tour money list as of the cutoff date before sectional qualifying automatically got in, down from the top 35. Davis said the reduction in spots was a result of only 10 LPGA events being played before the Women's Open.

The USGA also is looking at the world rankings as a form of exemption into the Women's Open, and has been doing so for a number of years, Davis said.

In men's play, the top 50 in the world rankings get into the U.S. Open.

FULL CIRCLE: Inbee Park is looking forward to playing the Women's Open as the defending champion - even though she's struggling this season.

The youngest player to win the Open at 19 years, 11 months, 17 days, Park says Saucon Valley Country Club is playing long. And that's just fine with her, because she's driving the ball 15 yards farther than last year, when she outlasted the field at Interlachen Country Club for her first pro victory.

"I think it definitely favors the long hitters; the course is playing fairly long, even without any rain," she said.

The 2002 U.S. Girls Junior champion has had a disappointing 2009, missing the cut in four of 13 LPGA events. Her best finish was a tie for 14th at the LPGA Championship last month.

But, the South Korean says her game is rounding into shape, and she likes her chances this week.

"I really feel like my game is coming back since last month," she said. "It's coming back, and I've been really preparing myself to play in this event.

"This is the event I've been waiting for all year."

STREAKING: Former Women's Open champion Laura Davies received a special exemption into the 2009 championship, keeping her streak of participating in the national championship alive.

Davies won the 1987 Women's Open, beating Ayako Okamoto and JoAnne Carner in an 18-hole playoff for her first professional victory. She has played in every Open since 1986.

The 20-time LPGA Tour winner's last victory came in 2001, at the Wegman's Rochester International. She has struggled on tour this year, making the cut in five of 10 tournaments, with her best finish a tie for 33rd at Phoenix in March.

Davies has been inconsistent at the Women's Open, too. She has missed the cut in eight of the last 12 championships and last played the weekend in 2007, when she tied for 32nd. She does have eight top-15 finishes.

Davies is in the first group off the first tee at 7 a.m. in Thursday's opening round.

RETURN TRIP: The Women's Open is the sixth USGA championship held at Saucon Valley Country Club. The Old Course hosted the 1951 U.S. Amateur, won by Billy Maxwell; the 1983 U.S. Junior Amateur, won by Tim Straub; the 1987 Senior Amateur, won by John Richardson; and two U.S. Senior Opens. Larry Laoretti prevailed in 1992 and Hale Irwin was the winner in 2000.

RECORD ENTRIES: The USGA received a record 1,278 entries for the event, topping the previous mark of 1,251 in 2007.

The total number of entries topped 1,000 for the sixth straight year.

The 156-player field includes 28 amateurs and players from 22 countries.

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