When the final putt fell on Sunday and Sophia Popov’s smile reflected back to her from the silver AIG Women’s Open trophy, it was the visage of one of the more remarkable major champions in recent memory. That she was there at all testified to her resilience.
And perhaps this longshot winner – No. 304 in the Rolex Rankings coming into Royal Troon – was the perfect champion in a year all about overcoming adversity. Truly, more than one winner was reflected in that trophy held high by Popov in the glow of the Scottish sun. The first LPGA major of 2020 was truly a major accomplishment.
That this tournament happened at all was the result of the masterful efforts of AIG, the R&A, LPGA and LET — an alphabet soup of organizations that outmaneuvered a persistent virus, just as Popov, who nearly gave up competitive golf last year, outmaneuvered a talented field.
“I don’t know if I can get anything out of my mouth,” Popov said after tears mixed with champagne on the 18thgreen.
“I almost quit playing last year; thank goodness I didn’t,” she said. “I knew my game was in good shape, but I never expected this. It’s definitely different than winning on the Cactus Tour.”
When Popov won on the Cactus Tour earlier this year it was for far less than $675,000 she earned Sunday, an amount six times her career earnings on the LPGA. Winless on both the LPGA and LET, Popov wouldn’t have been at Royal Troon if not for a top-10 finish in the Marathon Classic that earned a spot.
And the 27-year-old German who played college golf at the University of Southern California knows that not only was she lucky to be at the AIG Women’s Open, but that all 144 players were fortunate to have the opportunity.
“We’ve been extremely privileged,” she said. “AIG, the R&A, everyone who this week made the championship what it is. With everything we’ve had to deal with, particularly with COVID, we’ve been taken care of really well.”
There were no spectators but nothing could diminish the brilliance of Royal Troon. There was just enough weather – especially on Thursday and Friday – to make it true links golf and the R&A was extremely clever in adjusting the course each day to match conditions, moving tees up and back, handling the green speeds.
This tournament was a defiant statement that women’s golf is back in a major way. And the players cooperated by not only following all the safety protocols, but also putting on a spectacular show. Popov, the most entertaining of all, stopped before entering scoring to get “that damn mask,” she said with a huge smile.
She then signed for a 68 that put her at seven-under-par 277, two strokes better than Jasmine Suwannapura; four clear of Minjee Lee; and six ahead of Inbee Park, trying for her eighth major and making a determined effort to get on the South Korea Olympic team so she can defend her gold medal in Tokyo next year.
Everyone came into Royal Troon well aware of the importance of the AIG Women’s Open, both as a major championship and as a major accomplishment in terms of getting things back to some semblance of normalcy.
“We are very much here in circumstances that none much us would envisaged when we were at Woburn for the championship last year,” said Martin Slumbers, Chief Executive of The R&A.
“The pandemic has had a significant impact on the whole of golf, but we are pleased to give women's professional golf a real boost this week by playing this year's first major championship over these world-famous links, albeit behind closed doors,” he said.
Slumber used the platform of a major championship to then make major news about the future of the AIG Women’s Open.
“The pandemic, though, has given us a real opportunity to pause for thought and consider how we could best work towards our goal of elevating this championship,” he said. Slumber then announced the next five venues will be Carnoustie, Muirfield, Walton Heath, St. Andrews and Royal Porthcawl.
For Popov, who has been a Symetra Tour member since 2016 and has battled stomach issues throughout her career, this was truly a life-changing day. If there were nerves, she hid them well, not showing emotion until she lagged a putt on the final hole to within inches, marked her ball and began sobbing in the arms of the caddie/boyfriend Max Mehles.
Her only bogeys in the final round were on No. 1 and No. 18 – bookends than held up five birdies in between. She truly was never in trouble all day. When she missed a fairway or a green it was barely and her putter was rock solid.
“I was made aware that I got my LPGA card back, and honestly, that was like one of the biggest things that was on my mind the whole round was just, you know, getting my card back and being back where I feel like I belong,” she said about her final-round focus.
“Now that I'm there, I would say I belong in it,” she said. “Previous to this week, I honestly don't know, I think ability or capability-wise, I always believed yes, but it was all about getting it together during the right weeks. For it to be a major right off the bat, it was obviously more than I could have hoped.”
The entire week was more than could have been hoped for. And it sets the stage for the majors to come – the ANA Inspiration in September; the KPMG Women’s PGA in October and the U.S. Women’s Open in December.
Women’s major championship golf is back and Sophia Popov is back on the LPGA. The AIG Women’s Open had a lot of winners.