There’s nothing quite like witnessing a person’s life change for the better. It’s uplifting, emotional and leaves you with the feeling that perhaps the world isn’t such a bad place after all when wonderful things can happen to wonderful people. It certainly beats the unrelenting diet of dreadful global news that would make a saint despair.
Last Sunday a dream came true for Sophia Popov as she held off everyone and everything (including her own doubts and questions) in the final round of the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon. She is the first women’s major winner of this strange 2020 season; the first German woman to become a major champion; the third German player (after Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer) to hoist a major trophy.
Nothing has come easily to the 27-year old American-born German. Turning pro in 2014 she gained her LPGA card for the following year but was soon struggling with a myriad of health issues, lacking energy and stamina and losing 25 pounds in the process. It took almost three years and a great deal of her own research to arrive, finally, at the diagnosis of Lyme’s disease. Strict attention to her diet and fitness has helped her regain her strength and control of her life but it seemed as if playing on one of the major tours might well elude her. She played on a number of mini tours but suffered a huge disappointment as recently as last year when she missed out on her LPGA tour card by one stroke at the Q-series.
She almost gave up but family and friends persuaded her to keep going and with commendable resilience she turned her attentions to the Symetra Tour for 2020, judging this main feeder tour to the LPGA as her best opportunity to get back to where she felt she belonged.
And then Covid happened. And the Symetra Tour, like almost all sporting organisations, closed down. And we were in to lockdown.
I think at this stage, if it had been me, I might have thought the universe was trying to tell me something. But Sophia Popov, thankfully, isn’t me, and I, unfortunately, am not her, which is why I’m sitting here blogging and she, I hope, is with all her loved ones in Heidelberg (or her American home in Arizona) having a riotous, week-long party to rival that of Shane Lowry.
During the lockdown period there was one small tour that kept its doors open and kept giving players the opportunity to compete – the Arizona-based Cactus Tour. Several of the LPGA players availed themselves of the chance to try and retain a little bit of sharpness in their games and it was against this backdrop that Sophia recorded her first professional victory of any sort – and she didn’t stop at one win either! In a little under four months she had three wins and a host of other high finishes.
Popov exited lockdown and turned up at the first tournament on the new, revised LPGA schedule in Toledo, Ohio, not as a player but as a caddy for her great friend and European Solheim Cup star, Anne Van Dam. Assessing the course and risks with a caddy’s eye, as opposed to that of a player, really helped her with her course strategy, she said. She realised that often her aggressive attitude was a little gung-ho and that playing the percentages may serve her better. What a lesson to learn a month before a Women’s Open!At this point fate intervened to provide a rare helping hand. So many overseas players did not travel to the States for the resumption of the tour that a spot opened up for Sophia in the Marathon LPGA Classic, so this time she was inside the bubble as a player, not a caddy. A top-ten finish, her first ever in an LPGA event, earned her a cheque for a little over $27,000, her biggest-ever payday but more importantly she secured exemption into the field at Royal Troon two weeks later. Then she made what seemed to some a strange decision: she elected to stay in the States to play in a Symetra Tour event instead of going over to Scotland in plenty of time to prepare for the first major of the year. She admitted she was utterly focused on the Symetra Tour and achieving a top-five ranking at the year’s end to regain her LPGA tour card. The AIG Women’s Open was a “bonus event” for her.
As it happened, a second-place finish, which meant another week at the sharp end of a tournament and a late arrival at Troon, with time for only one practice round added up to her own personal recipe for success.
It just goes to show that winning and being in the mix at any level is a great habit to acquire. It armoured Sophia to deal with holding a 54-hole lead in a major for the first time in her life; it gave her the confidence to play down the stretch like a seasoned veteran; and it gave her the courage to seize this stupendous opportunity with both hands.Sophia’s bank manager will be very happy. Her winner’s cheque of $675,000 is six times more than she has banked in the whole of her career but the “add-ons” are exceptional, not least membership of the LPGA Tour and unlimited choice for the next few years to play wherever she wants. The winnings are great but the benefits are priceless.
At this point it’s worth a nod to the inimitable Dame Laura Davies who was so entertaining with her commentary throughout the week. Laura was not a member of the LPGA tour when she won the US Women’s Open in 1987 and there was no provision for major winners to be offered automatic membership of the tour. This caused the LPGA a bit of a headache as they certainly did not want the winner of their national Open potentially having to attend the end of season qualifying school. I seem to remember that Laura had said she would not be going to the Q-school so it was over to the tour to make the next move. They took their time but the rule was born that stated any major champion not already an LPGA member would be offered membership accordingly. So many over the years have benefited from this “Davies rule” and Sophia Popov is a welcome addition to that list.Finally, you will have noted, no doubt, that Sophia has dual citizenship – of Germany and America. I was heartened to see a German flag opposite her name in the US tournament lists as I’d love to see her in the next Solheim Cup – wearing yellow and blue, of course.