“This is why we play the sport.”
Those were the words of Sophia Popov, a 27-year-old German-American dual citizen who lives in Arizona and looks and sounds like she came straight off Mission Beach in San Diego.
You likely didn’t know Popov before last week, likely didn’t follow college golf when she was part of the 2013 NCAA championship team at Southern California. Or you didn’t keep tabs on the Cactus Tour – an Arizona mini-tour that saw plenty of LPGA Tour-player action during the forced break – where Popov won three times this past spring, her first professional wins in six years of toiling on every tour she could find.
But if you’re a fan of golf, you know her now. Popov became the darling of the game and a Cinderella story for all of sports in a competitively challenged 2020 when she came out of nowhere to win the AIG Women’s Open by two shots at Royal Troon, the first women’s major of this abbreviated season.
Sure, there have been plenty of unlikely major winners going all the way back to Francis Ouimet beating Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in the 1913 U.S. Open. In the post-hickory-shaft era, you have Jack Fleck beating Ben Hogan, Orville Moody’s U.S. Open victory in 1969, Hilary Lunke going through two stages of qualifying and an 18-hole playoff to win the 2003 U.S. Women’s Open, and Ben Curtis, who held off Thomas Bjørn and Vijay Singh at the 2003 Open Championship. But Popov might be top of the list.
She showed up at Troon ranked 304th in the world – up from 392nd on Aug. 3. She only qualified late for the Women’s Open by finishing in an 11-way tie for ninth at the Marathon LPGA Classic two weeks ago, then was runner-up in a Symetra Tour event last week before flying to Scotland on Tuesday. Three weeks ago she was a caddie – not a full-time caddie but a one-off for her best friend, Anne van Dam – at the LPGA Drive On Championship. And she did the job with the same ebullience and joie de vivre (if French is acceptable in describing a German) that she showed all week in Ayrshire.
“Earlier on, I was made aware that I got my LPGA card back. Honestly, that was like one of the biggest things that was on my mind the whole round ... "
It’s not the first time. Popov has volunteered for duty when she hasn’t played well enough to compete at the highest level in the past. When the Solheim Cup went to Deutschland in 2015, Popov did German media and acted as an unofficial translator for the cadre of English-speaking journalists at the event. Without her, many of us couldn’t have ordered a cup of coffee.
Now she is a major champion, having teed off on Sunday with a three-shot lead and still no status on the LPGA Tour.
“Earlier on, I was made aware that I got my LPGA card back,” Popov said after firing a near-flawless 68 in the final round to capture the championship by two shots ahead of Jasmine Suwannapura. “Honestly, that was like one of the biggest things that was on my mind the whole round was just, you know, getting my card back and being back where I feel like I belong.
“So, (how my life has changed) honestly hasn't sunk in. I don't even know what's coming after this, but I guess it’ll come to me.”
Popov played like anything but a journeywoman, hitting fairways and greens in the final two rounds like a veteran major winner. Her only sign of nerves came on the opening shot of the final round when she flushed a 3-wood into one of Royal Troon’s cavernous bunkers, which led to a first-hole bogey. But she bounced back with consecutive birdies and never looked like she would relinquish the lead.
Afterward, she revealed that she has battled Lyme disease since her rookie year on tour, an ailment that went misdiagnosed for almost three years and zapped her energy. That revelation explained a lot about why someone with such enormous talent could toil in obscurity for so long – to the point of considering quitting the game last year.
But there was another explanation as well, one Popov was eager to share.
“I think honestly, it is an incredible story and I think that's why I broke down (and cried) on the 18th hole because it’s been something that I couldn't have dreamed of just a week ago,” she said. “It's incredible that golf allows these things to happen because, the difference between two players any given week is never that big, but it might be 15 to 20 shots (on the scoreboard). Really, the ability of those players is not that far apart, and the hard work they put in is the same.
“Every player, every week, gets an opportunity to win. I'm one of 144 (players) that has an opportunity and who has the skill level. I just happened to have the week of my life.
“I have a great group of friends on the Symetra Tour. And on every tour, I have a group of friends. I always talk to my friends, and I say, honestly, anyone at any given time, you just keep your head in it, work hard, and you can make it, because essentially, you’ve had the scores that I've had.
“You know, it's possible. I think now a lot of the girls on smaller tours, they know, ‘I can be there, and I can do it.’ I want them to have the confidence to go out there and know that they can.”
Indeed, that is why we play the sport. And it is also why we watch.