Sophia Popov walked up the 18th fairway at Royal Troon Golf Club in what felt like a scene out of a movie. There were no fans. No grandstands. No cheers or applause. It was as though the director of Popov’s epic tale had just yelled “quiet on the set!” as the heroine made her champions walk up the 72nd hole of the AIG Women’s Open alongside Max Mehles, her boyfriend-caddie turned co-star.
“Doesn’t this remind you of something?” Popov remembers asking Mehles as they soaked in the scene on the 18th hole.
“Yeah, this is straight out of a movie,” Popov recalled Mehles saying. It reminded them of “Lord of the Rings.”
Popov’s story had all the trappings of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Popov became the lowest ranked player in the history of women’s golf, at No. 304 in the world, to win that major championship. To boot, her victory came only days after winning a mini-tour event. And, once Popov hoisted the trophy, she revealed a real plot twist. She’d spent the last several years battling undiagnosed Lyme Disease. Popov lost 25 pounds and her LPGA Tour card.
But what Popov never lost was her confidence. No matter how dire her situation became, Popov’s belief in her ability to one day become a champion on the LPGA Tour never waned.
“Ability or capability-wise I always believed, yes, but it was all about getting it together during the right weeks,” Popov said about her game. “For it to be a major right off the bat, it was obviously more than I could have hoped for but also something that I did know I was capable of.”
Many of life’s greatest stories seem almost unreal. Popov’s journey to the upper echelon of the women’s game was one of them. The mental fortitude she displayed seemed only attainable by those who were already tried and true champions, not a first-time winner who was dabbling on the Cactus Tour.
But Popov appeared to have it all figured out. When she spoke after her victory, she could already point to having learned many of the lessons that a seasoned veteran typically takes years to attain.
During that final round at Royal Troon, she and her caddie would often talk about the impending birth of her niece. They wondered if she might arrive that day or later in the week. It was a great diversionary tactic that kept Popov from succumbing to nerves. It wasn’t forced. It came naturally because Popov had already learned that there is more to life than golf.
“That really helped me because I said no matter what happens today, I have this amazing gift of a niece coming,” Popov said about focusing on her family. “Those are the things, honestly, that are more important. Personal life puts golf into perspective.
“For me, inside, for my mental game, it was the most important thing that had to happen,” Popov said about getting her mindset ready for a win. “I was kind of waiting for it and waiting for it and then I knew, okay, now I broke through.”
The greatest films feature seemingly insurmountable challenges for the protagonist to overcome. Popov certainly overcame her fair share. The irony that Popov was forced to endure 40 mph winds and frigid temperatures at Royal Troon wasn’t lost on the German.
“I think it almost resembled my pathway,” Popov said. “It hasn't been easy. It’s been a very bumpy, rollercoaster of a ride. It was a very fitting tournament for me to finally break through.”
Rightly, Popov’s phenomenal story came with a fairytale ending.
With her win she received $675,000, regained her LPGA Tour status and became even more grateful for her health. Since being diagnosed with Lyme Disease, Popov has become militant about her nutrition and fitness. She’s established a workout regime and diet. And, like any great story, there is inspiration to draw from Popov’s win.
“There is no timeline for everyone. For some it happens earlier; for some it happens later,” Popov said. “There are so many players out there that can make it any given week and I want them to know that and have the confidence that they can do it, too.”
While many sequels often lack the luster of the original film, Popov is prepared to write a thrilling next chapter. One year after her victory, she doesn’t feel changed as a person. But she does enjoy a new sense of comfort. She feels like she belongs. And even on the days when she doesn’t feel like her game is 100%, Popov can lean on the one trait that made her a champion - her confidence.
“It’s been an amazing 12 months,” Popov said. “I’m just excited to see what the future holds from here on out.”