LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | It’s her kind of event. Not only has Sophia Popov never met a stranger, she is the kind of magnetic media starlet who causes other celebrities to stop and pay attention. At the practice area at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club on Wednesday, Popov putted for just under an hour, greeting a plethora of MLB stars as if they were old friends, even though she quite clearly had no idea who they were. Then she waited in front of a Golf Channel camera for what seemed like an eternity to do a Golf Today hit with Shane Bacon and Damon Hack. She aced it like a veteran television host, which she has been in her native Germany at various times in her career
Then there was practice, a pretty intense session next to former NBA great Grant Hill who seemed far more starstruck and intimidated by Popov than she did by anything going on around her. Even Larry the Cable Guy riding his pitching wedge like a hobby horse up and down the range couldn’t rattle the 2020 AIG Women’s Open champion. One big infectious smile and she was back at it.
AIG noticed. The multinational insurance company is a Popov sponsor now. Others are on the way.
Personality makes up a big part of her appeal. As she joked in her Wednesday press conference with the media (after the practice and other obligations), “Yeah, so as you can tell, I'm a really anti-social person. I don't talk a lot at all.” Another huge smile and laugh, the kind that makes you lean in. “No, I talk a lot as it is in regular tournament play - sorry to all my fellow competitors out there; beware.”
Another part is the compelling nature of her story. Everyone at this Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions knows about Popov’s major win. It was the sports story of the year, a moment that transcended golf. Ranked 305th in the world, less than a month removed from caddying for her friend Anne van Dam and playing Cactus Tour events in Arizona in the hopes of getting a spot in an LPGA Tour field here or there, Popov caught lightning in a bottle, winning at Royal Troon by two shots, a life-changing moment she still has trouble grasping.
“You know, (my life) still continues to (change), she said. “I mean, obviously now I have a great new partner in AIG for this year, which is awesome. But I'm still super busy. I don't think that's going to change. Talked to some players out there today and they said, ‘Yeah, get used to.’ I'm like, ‘Okay, I'm trying.’ But it's for sure a different lifestyle that I'm living than I did before. But I quite like it. I'm enjoying it.
“Normally, I say being bilingual is a great thing. It has definitely increased my media schedule on both sides. I've got a lot of requests from Germany, and they're rolling in because everyone said, ‘Oh, we'll wait until you're done with the season and then we'll call you.’ I'm like, ‘Yep, sure felt that.’ After season was over, I got all the phone calls in and emails.
“I kind of cherish every moment that I get with my family and parents, nieces that are growing up really fast,” Popov said. “I have come to realize that I really have to use those days to try to get golf out of my mind as much as I can.”
That’s another reason she’s such a star this week.
Most people also know the story of Popov’s battle with Lyme disease and how close she came to walking away from the game. Her family kept her from descending to a dark place. She still tears up talking about it.
“You just have to know that there are going to be multiple times where you really think, ‘Okay, you can't do it anymore, you can't go any further,’” she said. “I was honestly just blessed enough to have an amazing family and friends to keep me going and tell me, ‘I think you can still do it. You just have to keep at it. Keep doing what you're doing and you'll be fine.’
“They pulled me through every day. Every time when I would have negative thoughts or I thought, ‘Okay, this is it’ or ‘I can't do it,’ they just said, ‘I think you can. Every time I go to play with you, you play amazing. I think it's just some mental things you have to overcome. You're good enough. You might not be 100%, but even your 80% is good enough to go out there.’ I think that, for the most part, was (what got me through the hard times)”.
Then the tears came.
Another reason Popov is the true celebrity at this event. She’s playing with Sterling Sharpe and Marcus Allen on Thursday. She knew Allen from her days at the University of Southern California – “I always walked past his poster and I was like, ‘Oh, he must have done some good things,” she said. Sharpe wasn’t on her radar, so she Googled him. “Very impressive career,” she said. “I'm very excited to learn more about it, to learn about their careers as athletes and what they had to go through and everything. They strike me as people that would be pretty open about it, so I'm looking forward to a lot of talking and hopefully some really good golf.”
Popov will know a lot more about the NFL Hall of Famers by the end of the day on Thursday. But rest assured, like everyone else here, they already know about her.