The German, who became an unlikely major champion during the summer, knows what it takes to win one of the LPGA’s top prizes
NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – In covering a women’s golf tournament, I feel like a fish out of water.
I wrote from the Solheim Cup in Scotland last year but since then have focused almost exclusively on the PGA and European tours. The exceptions were a men’s college event on the Sunday before Masters week and the Augusta Women’s Amateur.
So, when a fellow journalist said to me that he had no idea who any of the women were on the range here at Aronimink Golf Club, site of this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, his sentiment was not lost on me. I felt the same way as I craned my neck to see a name on a bag.
That reality makes me more of a fan than a journalist this week.
So, in that spirit, I knew with whom I wanted to speak: Sophia Popov.
I was enthralled with her game in late August at the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon and was rooting for her to win. She became a very popular champion.
Just a year ago, Popov, who had not won on any major pro tour, had considered giving up the professional game.
Winning a major championship for any man or woman is life-altering. For Popov, who said she splurged only on a TrackMan launch monitor with her winnings of $675,000, the victory made her one of the game’s bright stars during a global pandemic.
“I feel like it's never going to quite sink in; eventually it will, but not this year,” said Popov, who did not qualify for last month’s ANA Inspiration, despite her Women’s British Open victory, because she was not an LPGA member when she won. Thus, this week will be her first major-championship start as a major champion. “This is just my birthday present, my Christmas present, everything to myself.”
Popov, a German who turned 28 on Friday, said jokingly that her thrifty countrymen save their money and then pass it on to their kids. Popov, who is single and childless, has no specific plans, but she left the largess from Scotland in her bank account.
“It just feels like something illegal is happening on your account,” Popov said of the money hitting her account the following week. “And it still does.”
Outside of the money, Popov feels a level of confidence that comes only with winning.
It hardly matters where or when, but winning is the best tonic for what’s ailing a professional golfer.
Popov has experienced plenty of ups and down on lesser tours and always found that good golf supports the idea that her game is there. She just needed to play well during the right week.
After she walked off the course on that Sunday at Troon, more than 600 messages from friends and fans awaited her, supporting the idea that her victory would be transformative.
“I think I've always battled the game between the ears more than anything else my whole golf career, and I think for me that was the most important thing,” said Popov, who played college golf at Southern California. “But I still had to execute. So, I think I look back a lot and I look at certain shots and … I think it's a lot of self-pride in that moment that I was aggressive and I didn't back off of any of the shots. I went for most of them and went right at the pin and stuff like that … obviously proud of the execution just as much as the mental part.”
Now, Popov looks to continue to cash in on the confidence that she gained in Scotland.
Aronimink Golf Club won’t be confused with a links course such as Royal Troon, though it was designed by a Scotsman, the renowned Donald Ross, in 1928.
The par-70 course will play 6,577 yards, with greens running at 11.5 on the Stimpmeter, officials said. It will present a more traditional U.S. parkland-style challenge, emphasizing length and high approach shots into the undulating bentgrass greens.
Those facts don’t preclude Popov from competing, but she will face a different challenge.
“I actually saw all 18 today for the first time, and it was super chilly this morning,” Popov said of fall in eastern Pennsylvania. “I needed everything: mittens, beanie. I was, like, I'm right back at Troon, which felt pretty good to me, but except for the fact that I was hitting, like, 3-hybrids into every green, and I was, like, this is a little bit exhausting, so I hope they might put up some tee boxes.”
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