HOUSTON, TEXAS | In a game of inches, where one shot a round - one lip-out or one failed up and down - can be the difference between multiple victories and an also-ran career, what is the mindset that separates major champions from those on the other side?
For the answer, we go to Sophia Popov, who has been on both extremes of that ledger this year.
Popov had no LPGA Tour status when she got into the Marathon LPGA Classic as a Symetra Tour Member. She finished in the top-10 that week in Ohio, which got her into the AIG Women’s Open. And the rest is golf history. That week at Royal Troon remains one of the all-time best moments in sports and certainly the best story in golf in a COVID-stricken year like 2020.
Immediately following her victory in Scotland, and for weeks thereafter, Popov talked about the razor-thin margin between those players grinding to reach the next level and those who have a magical moment that forever changes their lives.
But now, in the waning days of a year everyone wants to see come to an end, Popov is more reflective. After a 2-under-par opening round at the 75th U.S. Women’s Open - a Thursday that left her just two shots off Amy Olson’s first-day lead - the 28-year-old from Germany understands that it isn’t always the shots that make the champion. It is the mindset the champion brings to the shots that make the difference.
“I get pretty excited when I'm out here, especially now when I'm a lot more comfortable,” Popov said. “I'm definitely nervous when I'm on the first tee, but it's a different kind of nervous. It's one that I can play with and not one that stops me from playing well. I enjoy that.”
Then she went deeper, explaining the different attitude she brings to major championships.
“I'm starting (every week) at even par like everyone else,” she said. “But in my head, I'm trying to go ‘down’ instead of avoiding going ‘up.’ I think mentally it's been a little bit more freeing. It’s freed me up to just think about making birdies and how can I make birdies instead of wondering how I am going to avoid making bogeys.”
It’s the difference in a basketball player going to the free-throw line thinking about what defensive play to run after she makes the free throws instead of trying not to miss.
On Sunday in Scotland, Popov, for the first time in her career, embraced the adage: See it to be it. She saw herself holding the trophy and it didn’t scare her. She embraced the moment and the mindset it took to get there.
Now, she sees herself as someone who belongs on the first page of a U.S. Women’s Open leaderboard, someone who should contend week-in and week-out.
“I go out there now thinking about making birdies and going under par, whereas previously it was how do I avoid making bogeys and going over par,” she said. “The past few weeks my game hasn't quite been there, and I've still been finishing pretty well. That's kind of a comforting feeling to go into a major and know, okay, if I tweak a couple of things and my ball-striking goes back to where it was just past the British, then I know I'm going to play well. That's definitely a comforting feeling to have.”
It’s also a feeling she remembers. Popov was one of the top-ranked amateurs in the world when she competed at the University of Southern California and represented her country on the German national team. Back then, she showed up brimming with confidence, a feeling that faded as she battled health issues and saw her status and ranking fall.
Now, she remembers.
“It's definitely a similar feeling,” she said. “It's definitely more like when I teed it up in college and I always felt every week that if I play my best then I could win. That's more of the feeling that I have now. Even though you're teeing it up with the best players in the world, and you have to sometimes accept that there are girls who are going to be shooting low numbers on days that are not easy, but the feeling that I have is very similar to that college feeling. The one that I used to have.”
That, and 2-under par in a major, are very good places to be.