Wrapped in the wonderful whimsy of links golf is the role of nature. After two days of hold-onto-your-hat weather at the AIG Women’s Open, Saturday at Royal Troon breathed a sigh of relief and players exhaled a barrage of birdies, setting the stage for Sunday’s final-round.
After only three players shot in the 60s the first 36 holes, there were 12 who pulled if off Saturday and no one was more impressive than Sophia Popov, whose 67 has her leading at four-under-par 209, three strokes better than Minjee Lee and Jasmine Suwannapura.
The birdie barrage bunched up the leaderboard with 18 players within five strokes of second place going into the final round. And there is ample opportunity for volatility on Sunday as suddenly resurgent Lydia Ko at 215 is the only player among the top 12 who’s won a major championship.
Popov, who hit the shot of the day, also had the round of the day, if not the week. Her driver off the deck on the par-5 fourth hole ended 12 feet from the hole. She made the putt for eagle. She added birdies at Nos. 12 and 17 as her 67 tied for the low round this week and is the only bogey-free round of the tournament.
“It was a great way to get into my round,” Popov said about the eagle. “I believe 258 or 259 [yards] and a little uphill. Just suited my eye. Good lie. I just said, ‘All right, I'm just going to go for it’ and I hit it in the perfect spot and it just curled around and I was able to make that putt which was nice.”
While Popov, 27, has not won on the LPGA, LET or Epson Tour, one of those chasing her has a lot of experience being in this position. While Lee, the talented Australian, has yet to win a major, she has five LPGA victories and is No. 8 in the Rolex Rankings.
“We definitely had less wind today,” Lee said after a 69. “It was a little bit easier and you could control the ball flight. I hear the wind might die down tomorrow. If that’s the case, I’ll be a little more aggressive and try to shoot a low score. I’m super excited.”
This leaderboard has more characters than a Charles Dickens novel. Lindsey Weaver, who is at 214, has no caddie – she pushed a hand cart around Royal Troon. And a few weeks ago, Popov, a Epson Tour player from Germany since 2016 who played college golf at the University of Southern California, was a caddie – looping for Anne Van Dam in an LET event.
“Anne's my best friend,” Popov said. “We've been hanging out a lot during the quarantine. I did realize when I caddied for her, there are certain things about my game where I see similarities and course strategy-wise, I think that helped me a lot. Because 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.’”
The birdies started flying early on Saturday at Royal Troon. Katherine Kirk put up a 67 to get in the clubhouse at three over par 216 and was later joined by Jennifer Song and Cydney Clanton. Kristen Gillman went out in 31 on her way to a 68 to be at 215 with Ko and Emily Kristine Pedersem. Caroline Masson posted a 68 and is at 214 along with Weaver and Austin Ernst.
“It was a little bit easier than the last couple days,” Masson said. “It was just a little less wind. But you have to really focus and you have to hit good shots and think your way around and try not to have too many mistakes. If you get out of position, take bogey if possible and move on.”
A trio of major winners are lurking at 217 – Ariya Jutanugarn, winner of the 2016 AIG, In Gee Chun and Inbee Park, whose seven major titles include the 2015 AIG Women’s Open. Also, among those at 217 is Rolex Ranking No. 4 Nelly Korda.
“I think patience is probably key for me,” Popov said about suddenly stepping out from the shadows of obscurity. “I think my golf game has always been there and the shot-making has been there, but it's always been about coming up with it in the right moments and not being too hard on myself with bad shots that I hit.”
That discipline will get a true test on Sunday.
While the forecast is for milder wind, it is also for the prevailing wind at Royal Troon, which means the outward nine will play downwind then turn into the wind on the challenging trip back to the clubhouse.
Perhaps nature will be nice, but there is one constant than doesn’t rely on a forecast. Forget barometric pressure; the final-round pressure of the AIG Women’s Open is a certainty. And the demands of Royal Troon will provide the perfect test on Sunday.