Women's Open Preview
AS SHE heads to Carnoustie to defend her Women's Open title, Sophia Popov will surely take a moment or two to reflect on how much her life has changed in the past 12 months.
When she won at a deserted Royal Troon, with not a paying spectator in sight, Popv was ranked 304th in the world and had no status on the LPGA Tour. In fact, she had nearly quit the game, deciding to give it one more go.
At the age of 28 she finally tasted victory on the Cactus Tour, an Arizona-based circuit that carried on throughout the pandemic. She won the next week too, setting a course record with an opening 61 at Las Colinas and followed it up with a third title.
Having qualified to play at Royal Troon, she only went ahead and won. With no grandstands and fans to wave to as Popov came up the 18th fairway with a three-shot lead, she turned to her caddie, boyfriend Maximilian Mehles, and told him that the calming seaside views reminded her of a scene from Lord of the Rings.
It wasn’t the atmosphere she deserved, but Popov knew that her performance was special and that it would almost certainly inspire others.
“I think that’s why I broke down on the 18th hole,” said Popov, “because it’s been something I couldn’t have dreamed of just a week before and it’s incredible that golf allows for these things to happen because the difference between two players any given week is never that big … and the hard work they put in is the same.”
The first two rounds at Royal Troon were as stern as they come. The cut line fell at nine over and despite the weekend providing much improved scoring conditions, only four players broke par for the week.
Popov entered the final round with a three-stroke lead and looked primed to falter after an opening bogey. Instead she recorded back-to-back birdies to get her challenge back on track.
Inbee Park made a late charge with a closing 66 to finish fourth and Minjee Lee, who at that time was one of the best on tour without a major, carded a third consecutive 69 with one of the most outlandish up and downs ever recorded at the Postage Stamp. She’d finish alone in third, four shots back.
Jasmine Suwannapura, a two-time winner on the LPGA who broke her back four years ago, came the closest to spoiling Popov’s party, but even her 67 wasn’t enough to thwart the German.
The lead was so comfortable, in fact, that a safe bogey on the 72nd hole gave Popov a two-stroke victory at 7-under 277 and a life-changing cheque for $675,000.
“I knew that the winner’s cheque is very big,” said Popov, “but I didn’t know it was that big, which is awesome.”
She had won $108,051 in total on the LPGA prior to winning at Troon. But because Popov was not a member of the LPGA, her winnings did not count towards the money list.
She joined Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer as the only Germans to have won a major championship. Popov first earned LPGA membership in 2015 and Royal Troon marked her 34th LPGA appearance.
“I almost quit playing last year,” she said. “Thank God I didn’t.”
Instead she committed to a full year on the Symetra Tour, which turned into a full schedule on the Cactus Tour after the coronavirus brought everything else to a halt. In July, Popov traveled to Toledo to caddie for good friend Ann van Dam at the Inverness Club. She got into the next week’s field, the Marathon LPGA Classic, because the tour filled out the field with Symetra Tour players after COVID-19 kept many international players from coming over.
Popov took advantage of the opportunity, finishing tied for ninth. That showing got her into the field at Royal Troon. She flew back to Phoenix to compete on the Symetra Tour, finished tied for second, and arrived in Scotland three days before the tournament began. After one practice round she took off on her magical run, watching a rerun of Henrik Stenson’s triumph over Phil Mickelson in 2016 at Troon for inspiration.
During her rookie year, Popov started to struggle with about 10 different symptoms, including fatigue and a weight loss of about 25 pounds. It took three years and 20 doctor visits before she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease.
“It was just a struggle,” said Popov, “and really, only my inner circle knew about that until now.”
Mehles, who played college golf at Kentucky, was part of that inner circle and his job in the final round at Troon was to remind her to eat and drink and break the tension with talk about the birds and boats that he spotted.
After the third round, as Popov was getting in her car to head back to her hotel, Dame Laura Davies drove up, rolled down her window and said: “Just keep doing what you did today, you’ll be just fine tomorrow.”
Popov took Davies' words to heart.
“I know anything’s possible,” she said, “and I think I took that belief with me to every round, but I never expected this.”
Popov arrived late to the Championship. Upon arrival in Scotland late on Monday, the German was then forced to quarantine for most of Tuesday as she awaited the results of her Covid-19 test.
It left her with limited time for preparation, as she got ready to play in only her fifth major championship.
“Every time I tee it up I try to win, my preparation for every tournament is the same” Popov said. “And honestly, the preparation that I had for the Women’s Open last year was not the preparation I would have ever, ever had. That’s not how I see an ideal preparation for a tournament!
“But it worked out well for me, I kind of just take things as they come. I don’t like to over-analyse things. I know what kind of shot I need to hit, I either execute the shot or I don’t. I’m a very go-by-the-moment, day-by-day kind of person.”
She says that she is meticulous in her approach.
“I’m pretty superstitious to the point where I’m probably too superstitious”, she said.. “Like, I’m superstitious with the stuff that I use, my equipment, I’m very superstitious with that. I don’t like to change things very often, the balls I use, the markings I have, the ball markers I use, like everything I’m very superstitious about. But I’m starting to loosen up a little bit in that department, because I realise mentally it’s probably not the best approach. And (arriving to Carnoustie llate this year) is one thing I can be extremely superstitious about.”
Popov will defend her title in front of up to 8,000 fans per day.
Competing at one of golf’s greatest tests will be 144 of the world’s best female players, including world No. 1 Nelly Korda, seven-time major champion Inbee Park, and home favourite Georgia Hall, who won the Championship in 2018.
However, golf’s next generation of stars will also be looking to make their mark, with Ireland’s Leona Maguire, American Yealimi Noh and Thailand’s Attaya Thitikul leading the charge.
Maguire and Thitikul are no strangers to the Women’s Open, having both lifted the Smyth Salver awarded to the low amateur, but they are now blazing their own trails in the professional ranks.
Maguire is a former World Amateur Golf Ranking No 1 and has lifted numerous amateur titles including the Ladies’ British Open Amateur Championship, the Irish Women’s Amateur Close Championship and the Scottish Women’s Amateur Strokeplay.
This season, the 26-year-old has recorded two runner-up finishes on the LPGA Tour as well as a record-equalling 10-under-par final round of 61 at the Evian Championship.
Thailand’s latest prodigy, 18-year-old Thitikul, first emerged onto the world stage winning the 2018 Women’s Amateur Asia-Pacific Championship. She is now a three-time Ladies European Tour winner and leads the Race to Costa del Sol, having captured the Tipsport Czech Ladies Open as well as finishing inside the top five on five occasions.
Noh, meanwhile, finished third at the 2021 Amundi Evian Championship and is 31st in the Rolex Women’s Golf World Rankings.
Maguire, who is seeking to become Ireland’s first female major champion, said: “It would be a dream come true to win the AIG Women’s Open. I love links golf and I hope my previous experience in this Championship and at Carnoustie will stand me in good stead."
Debutants include Finland’s Matilda Castren, who has won on both the LPGA and LET this season, and Slovenian 17-year-old Pia Babnik, who lifted her maiden LET title at the 2021 Jabra Ladies Open having previously won the 2019 R&A Girls’ Amateur Championship.
Spurred on by the statistic that each of the last nine major champions have been first-time major winners, Castren said, “The standard of the field is so high, it really is all to play for. I am so proud to represent my country around the world and it doesn’t get much bigger than the AIG Women’s Open. Links golf is truly the purest test, and I am excited by the idea that you need to play your best golf to win. I can’t wait to make my debut and help to shine a spotlight on golf in Finland.”
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