First things first: Sophia Popov, ranked 304th in the world and having never won on the LPGA Tour or Symetra Tour, captured the 2020 AIG Women’s Open with a final-round score of 67 for a 7-under par total, two shots clear of Jasmine Suwannapura and three ahead of Minjee Lee.
As extraordinary as that recitation of facts might be – and it is one of the biggest stories in all of sports in 2020 - the week at Royal Troon on the Ayrshire coast of Western Scotland offered so much more than a dry recounting of the final results.
It had everything you’d want in a major, particularly as the best women golfers in the world made their debut appearance on one of the great links courses in the world.
It had two rounds of survival in conditions so miserable that some players, including Nelly Korda, No. 4 in the Rolex Rankings, had a hard time standing and walking, with 40 mph wind gusts on Thursday and Friday followed by a beautiful Scottish weekend – dog-walkers on the beach, the wind a mere zephyr. Sprinkles of rain didn’t return until the leaders reached the 11th fairway on Sunday, and that was in a dead calm.
The week also offered a nod to the strange times in which we live, with a player named Lindsey Weaver who couldn’t get a caddie into the COVID bubble, contending into the weekend while pushing her own trolly.
It had big names making late runs, including Inbee Park who put on a birdie borage in the final round to become one of only four of players to finish the week under par.
And it had Popov, a German native with a California accent, whose only wins of late have come on the Cactus Tour near her U.S. home in Arizona. The 27-year-old, who has never finished a season inside the top-100 on the LPGA Tour money list, missed her card at 2019 LPGA Q-Series by a single shot and was only in the field at the AIG Women’s Open because of a top-10 finish at the Marathon Classic, a tournament she didn’t realize she was eligible to play.
“I was definitely shocked,” she said about getting into the Marathon field. “At the beginning, I didn't even realize that we were going as far down as the Symetra Tour (fill-in list). I had other players asking me, ‘Did you sign up, because I see some other Symetra players there.’ I know I'm No. 1 pretty much on the priority list. So, if anyone gets in, it should be me.
“I signed up and got in. I think a lot of that was due to COVID because I think a lot of players didn't want to come to the States, either from Europe or Asia. So, I obviously took advantage of that and it was a bonus event for me. I took advantage and used the opportunity to get here.”
A bogey-free 67 on Saturday that included an incredible eagle on the par-5 4th after hitting a stinging driver from the fairway gave Popov her first 54-hole lead, not just in a major but in any LPGA event. “There are going to be a lot of nerves there (on Sunday),” she said. “I would be lying if it wasn't that way. Also, that's why we play the sport.”
If there were nerves on Sunday, they didn’t show. Standing on the first tee, Popov waved and smiled at friends, her face and shoulders as relaxed as they were three weeks ago when she caddied for her best friend Anne van Dam in the LPGA Drive On Championship.
“This is going to be a little bit of a shout-out to Anne, because Anne's my best friend,” Popov said. “We've been hanging out a lot during the quarantine, because we had nowhere to go for like three months. We did a lot of stuff together, including obviously practicing, but also other activities, and I think we got very close and I kind of fed off of her energy a lot. I think that week (at Inverness Club) when I caddied for her, it was very interesting to see the course being played from a different perspective.
“Going into the next week, I thought about the course a little bit more from a caddie perspective. I said, ‘What is the smart decision to make here?’ I'm someone who tends to be very aggressive. I go at pins. But do you have to? No, not really. You can give yourself a lot of chances just with safer shots going for the middle of the green. So that definitely helped me.”
In the waning hours of this championship, that strategy became evident. As comfortable as Popov looked on the first tee, a rush of adrenaline caused a 3-wood to fly further than normal and the ball found a deep, left bunker. From there, she wedged out, wedged on and made a bogey, which had a lot of interested spectators saying, “uh oh, here we go.”
But on the next hole, she bounced back with an 8-iron from 151 yards that stopped 12 feet away. She made that birdie, pumped her fist and strode confidently to the third tee.
At three, one of the fastest players in the women’s game looked like one of the most confident, hitting an approach to 10 feet and making another birdie. After missing what would be considered makeable birdie efforts at Nos. 4 and 5, Popov rolled in another 10-footer for birdie at the par-5 6th and left a 12-footer at 7, two inches short of the hole. It was how a seasoned veteran, with a wealth of victories would play the final group of the final round of a major – stress-free pars with just enough birdies to make the field come to her.
Several tried. Jasmine Suwannapura reeled off four consecutive birdies on the front nine to climb to within a shot of the lead and added two straight on the back, but got no closer.
After eight consecutive pars from the 7th through the 14th, Popov caught a great break on 15 when her tee shot inched left of a deep bunker. From there, she hit an approach to 20 feet and made the putt for another birdie to widen the lead to four shots. She made it a five-shot margin with a 12-foot birdie putt on 16.
A bogey on 18 was meaningless. But the victory, the first major for a German woman, meant everything.