RANCHO MIRAGE, CALIFORNIA | It’s every week now. Since Sophia Popov won the AIG Women’s Open last summer, she hasn’t missed a single cut. That’s a nice story, one worth mentioning. But she’s even better than that. Popov seems like a regular now on the front page of the leaderboard, a fixture on the Golf Channel leaders graphics, always at or near the top.
This ANA Inspiration is no exception. Once again, a quick gander down the board shows the ebullient 28-year-old a stone’s throw from the lead going into what is supposed to a boiling hot weekend at Mission Hills.
“Yeah, it's nice talking to you guys every week,” she said at her post-round press conference on Friday after shooting 69 in windy conditions to reach 5-under par. “I know things are going well (when you want to talk to me).”
Popov came into the desert with two top-10s in four starts this year. She was a Saturday hiccup at the Kia Classic away from perhaps making it three out of four. And in major championship conditions with firm, fast greens and gnarly rough – anything but fun – Popov continues to smile and joke and engage. She’s stress-free, like every round is a Wednesday pro-am.
“I'm just a lot calmer out there,” she said of her positive vibe. “I'm enjoying myself. I'm hitting good shots. I wouldn't even say every part of my game is 100% right now. But I think the confidence is really giving me that little edge. When a round could go one way it's going the other way just because I feel like I don't have a lot to lose. I'm not sure why I feel like I'm in that position, but I think I am. I'm just kind of going out and creating as many chances as I can and going along and trying to make birdies.”
Even without her game at 100%, Popov has had one bad hole in two rounds, a double bogey at the seventh in round one. Since then, she’s played her last 29 holes with seven birdies and no bogeys.
“If it's stress-free and you're making a lot of pars, that always feels good,” she said.
This is Popov’s first appearance at the ANA Inspiration but not her first trip to the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills.
“Majors are always special, and this one is very special to me even though I've never played it because I've been here a bunch of times watching former teammates of mine and German girls,” she said. “I know the course. I know kind of how it plays. I've just been really looking forward to playing it myself. It definitely fulfilled all my expectations.”
She also has good instincts, not just for how to interact with people – and she is magnetic on that front – but for how to manage a major championship golf course.
“I talked to my caddie about it,” Popov said. “I said, ‘I think this course is a lot about missing the fairways on the right side.’ So, if you do miss (some fairways) or you have a tendency, you kind of play with that. Then it's okay to miss them, you can run (approaches) up to the green. But you just have to give yourself angles to the pins and then just be patient.
“Sometimes you have to play for the middle of the green, two-putt, and go. I just think in major championships I'm okay with that. I back off a little bit. I think in a regular event I'm a little bit more aggressive and I'm like, ‘We need to be going for pins right now.’ But during a major championship I always know people are going to have bad shots or make bogeys out there.”
Those are the words of a seasoned veteran, a player who you would expect to have a lot of LPGA Tour victories. Given her mindset and her ball-striking, this could be the week she notches her second career win, and her second major.
“I think just playing the same way I did obviously at the AIG Women's Open would be good,” Popov said. “Just keep plugging along. I like the position I'm in right now. I know there are some girls that shot a little bit lower than me or are shooting lower than me right now, and that's fine. Being up there (on the leaderboard) and playing in the afternoon (on the weekend) is always a good sign.
“So, just fairways and greens. That’s always good out here.”