First the “Smiling Cinderella” at Woburn and now a fairytale story at Royal Troon. The AIG Women’s Open is developing a knack of being something special. The tears were flowing before Sophia Popov holed her final putt at the Ayrshire venue to deliver a narrative every bit as memorable as Hinako Shibuno winning this event last year.
Luckily for Popov, that denouement was to knock in a tiddler. By then, the 27-year-old German knew she’d pulled off one of the biggest shocks in the Royal & Ancient game. Forget Todd Hamilton winning the men’s equivalent at the same course in 2004 as he was the world No 56 at the time and had triumphed on the PGA Tour in the Honda Classic earlier that year.
Popov, who was born in Massachusetts but moved to Germany as a child, came into this event as the world No 304. Her previous best finish in a major was 57th in the Women’s PGA Championship. She didn’t hold a full status for the LPGA Tour. It took a nudge from her mother, in fact, to stop her packing in golf at the end of last season.
In the week history was made as Royal Troon staged the women’s major for the first time, she has transformed her career. And what a worthy winner, too. Three ahead at the start of the day, Popov shook off an opening bogey to produce a polished performance in the final round. Showing incredible composure, she carded five birdies in signing off with a 68.
With a seven-under-par 277 total, she won by two shots from Thailand’s Jasmine Suwannapura (67), with Australia’s Minjee Lee (69) third on three under and Korean Inbee Park the only other player to finish in red figures thanks to a 66 leaving her on one under.
“No words will describe what I’m feeling,” said Popov of a success worth $675,000. “It’s a mix of just over-excitement and all kinds of emotions, and I honestly can’t quite believe it yet. It hasn’t sunk in. It feels amazing. I’ve had a lot of struggles the last six years, especially health-wise (she had Lyme disease), and I’m just glad I was able to overcome everything and just keep my head in it. I almost quit playing last year, so thank God I didn’t.”
Popov is the first German player to win a women’s major and joins Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer in earning that status. She set up this chance through a top-ten finish in the Marathon Classic in Ohio on the LPGA Tour, having caddied for Dutch player Anne Van Dam when she didn’t get into the Drive On Championship on the US circuit the week before.
As an amateur, Popov had played links golf in the British Girls’ and British Women’s Championships, including one at Carnoustie. That experience certainly helped during a testing week weather-wise here, as did the confidence she gained from recording three wins on the Cactus Tour, a mini-circuit in the US, during lockdown then finishing second on the Symetra Tour, the LPGA Tour’s feeder circuit, before heading to Scotland.
“Previous to this week, I honestly don’t know,” said Popov in reply to thinking she could become a major winner. “I think ability or capability-wise, I always believed, yes, but it was all about getting it together during the right weeks. My biggest goal was to win an LPGA event, period. For it to be a major right off the bat, it was obviously more than I could have hoped for but also something that I did know I was capable of.”
As was the case when Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson battled out on the same course for the Claret Jug in 2016, we were treated to a thrilling title tussle on the last day on one of the best championship courses on the planet. It was a pity that the wind from the first three days had died away to only a gentle puff, but that didn’t detract from what unfolded.
Suwannupara, a 27-year-old from Bangkok who had the same spinal fusion surgery as Tiger Woods four years ago, reeled off four birdies in a row on the front nine. She was breathing down Popov’s neck at the turn and so, too, was Lee, helped by a ridiculous par save from thick stuff up the bank at the left of the Postage Stamp.
It was only when Popov rolled in a monster for a birdie at the 15th then birdied the par-5 16th as well that she could start breathing a bit easier. Even then, Suwanapura kept pushing right to the end with birdies at the 16th and 17th, but Popov wasn’t to be denied. A bogey at the last didn’t matter.
“I was a lot calmer than I thought I would be,” admitted Popov, who said she’d worn a pair of winter mitts on an August day due to the fact her hands are always “very cold” due to a poor blood flow. “I figured that if I looked calm on the outside, then inside it will be like that, too. That’s what I tried to do the whole round.”
She had me singing “Deutschland, Deutschland, Peter Alliss” to myself over those final few holes.
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