LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | Last weekend at the LPGA’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, most LPGA players made a point of finding their favorite celebrities, even if those celebrities aren’t known outside a narrow fan base.
“I’m playing with (country music singer) Colt Ford today, maybe (baseball player) Tim Wakefield,” Brittany Lincicome said early in the week of the two-in-one tournament where tour players were paired in the same groups with celebrities, but not as partners. “When do you ever get to do that?
“It’s just so fun to come and hang out and hit golf balls on the range by these guys and just get to talk to them for two seconds about life or their career or anything, really.”
Stacy Lewis trolled the range on Sunday, filling the front of her yardage book with autographs. And every LPGA player who walked past New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks spoke and wished him well.
But among the celebrities, one LPGA Tour player stood out. And it wasn’t a name you would expect. The belle of the ball in an event that had more of a party atmosphere than anything else was Sophia Popov. Basketball hall of famer Grant Hill, who set up next to Popov on the range early in the week stopped his practice and watched as Popov warmed up. So did actor and singer Jack Wagner. National Football League receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who played with Popov on Sunday, seemed smitten as the two chatted. They all knew about the reigning AIG Women’s Open champion, even though the reverse wasn’t always true. Popov, a native of Germany who now lives in Naples, Florida, relied on Google to learn about her playing partners.
But this event was made for someone like her. As Popov said, “I talk a lot as is in regular tournament play. Sorry to all my fellow competitors out there; beware. But I think this is absolutely something that I really look forward to, especially because of that. I actually think this interaction between players and celebrities, whether it’s the actors or the athletes, is really cool. It's unique. It’s something that only happens once a year unless you’re lucky enough to play with some of them in pro-ams.”
Even though the pandemic kept players and celebrities from attending parties together – they didn’t even mingle in the same clubhouse – Popov still was the life of the party on the driving range. She danced and sang to the music that Diamond Resorts piped onto the practice tees. “I wish we would do this every week,” she said. “I’m really going to miss it next time we’re out. It certainly wakes you up and gets you moving.”
But her never-met-a-stranger personality isn’t the main reason Popov was such a hit. Her story, grinding through the lowest of lows and coming out of nowhere to win one of the biggest events in the game, resonates with other athletes and successful artists.
“I think it's very easy to look for negatives all the time,” she said. “I just have so much love for the game, it’s very hard if you've played a sport your whole life or done something your whole life to just quit. But I think that (in the down times) you need to find something that keeps you going and motivated, just little positives that happen.
“I think my boyfriend and my mom pulled me through (the worst of it). Every time when I would have negative thoughts or I thought, ‘OK, this is it,’ or ‘I can't do it,’ they said, ‘I think you can. Every time I go to play with you, you play amazing. I think it's just some mental things you have to overcome. You're good enough. You might not be 100 percent, but even your 80 percent is good enough to go out there.’ I think that, for the most part, was it for me. ”
And that, for the most part, was what made Popov the “It Girl” at an event that was full of them.