Kindness isn’t always easy. For some, it takes years of concerted, disciplined practice and still, as with the golf swing, they look awkward and out of sorts even when making the right moves.
But for some, that rare few, kindness is an instinct, an immutable trait built into their DNA as surely as height or eye color.
Our newest major champion, Sophia Popov, is among that exceptional breed.
I first met Sophia at the 2013 NCAA Championships. She and her fellow Trojans from the University of Southern California won, and Popov was the “It Girl” that week, the one everyone saw as a superstar despite having players like Maria Stackhouse, Emma Talley, Stephanie Meadow and other future LPGA Tour players in the field. Still, Popov went out of her way to deflect praise, heaping all credit onto her teammates, especially a quiet freshman named Annie Park. It wasn’t like football players, who with puffed chests and no eye contact go through the motions of saying, “it’s all about the team.” Sophia meant it. Despite being a three-time All-American, she was far happier for Park and her coach, Andrea Gaston, than she was for herself.
Two years later, my initial impression of Popov was validated. The place was Sankt Leon-Rot, Germany, a small town just south of Heidelberg. The event was the Solheim Cup. Despite what many of us predicted two years before, Popov wasn’t playing. She was working in German media, covering the event like the rest of us.
Early in that week and early in the morning, because jet lag does strange things to sleep cycles, I went to the dining tent for coffee and eggs. A couple of seconds in, I realized I might have a problem. Ich spreche no Deutsch, and the hard-looking man in charge couldn’t say “good morning” in English.
Then came a voice I recognized, sweet and kind – even when speaking German, which, let’s face it, sounds anything but sweet. In Manheim, Shakespeare still sounds like someone reading a Volkswagen owner’s manual. It was Sophia, who wasn’t eating, but who saw me meander in and thought I might need help.
That scene played out numerous times with lots of reporters. Two years later, I ran into Popov again at a Symetra Tour event during a time when her career hadn’t turned out how anyone expected. When I thanked her again for making sure I and others didn’t starve in Germany, she was nice enough to pretend she remembered.
Same as ever. Kind to the core.