It’s becoming routine, although no one would have believed it seven months ago. A glance at the leaderboard on Friday at the Kia Classic finds a couple of major champions poised perfectly for the weekend. One is Inbee Park, which comes as no surprise. The only way to be wrong about Inbee is when you underestimate her, a lesson many followers of the LPGA Tour have learned the last five years.
But the other major champion is the pleasant surprise who keeps popping into our consciousness; the one who keeps bringing a smile to the faces of all who watch her; the player who came out of nowhere last summer and chose to stay a while. That player is reigning AIG Women’s Open champion Sophia Popov.
When she won at Royal Troon in August, everyone agreed it was the feel-good, Cinderella sports story of the year, an almost too-good-to-be-true drama that left everyone misty-eyed and happy. Nine months removed from thinking about quitting the game, caddying for her friend Anne van Dam just a few weeks before, no status on the LPGA Tour but in the field because of one good week in Ohio and, shazam, she held off the field at one of the game’s most historic venues to become golf’s unlikeliest major champion since Fleck beat Hogan in 1955.
But let’s face it, nobody thought it would last. If you polled aficionados of the women’s game, you would have been lucky to find two who thought Popov would don the first page of another leaderboard. Hers was a wonderful one-week story.
Once again, she is proving the experts spectacularly wrong, just as she did with a 10th-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions in January and the tie for 8th she notched at the Gainbridge LPGA last month. She hasn’t missed a single cut since joining the LPGA Tour 30 minutes after her AIG Women’s Open win.
Back-to-back rounds of 68 in the Kia Classic solidified it further. Popov, within a whisper of the lead going into the weekend, is here to stay.
“It’s a little bit heartbreaking that people really thought I was a one-hit wonder,” she said after her second round in Carlsbad. “I knew that I would need one good finish in order to propel me to do what I'm doing now. Inside me, for my mental game, it was the most important thing that had to happen. I was kind of waiting for it and waiting for it, and then I knew, okay, now I’ve broken through. Now I can just go out and do my thing and not worry as much.”
The elements have always been there. When she was at the University of Southern California, Popov was the leader of a star-studded team that won the NCAA National Championship. But her professional career floundered with wild fluctuations in consistency and problems with her health. It took a long time for her to be diagnosed with Lyme disease. She is now on a diet regimen that has made all the difference.
But she also admits to heaping far too much pressure on herself.
“I think that a lot of the bad play that I had over the last five or six years was due to just the pressure situations that I was in, always being on the cusp of having my card and flipping back between having (LPGA Tour status) and not having it. That just put me under a lot of pressure. I put myself under an incredible amount of pressure. So, I think with that being released, that kind of tension, it just helped me play well.
“Now I just feel comfortable. I'm having a good time and I think I am just enjoying myself out there a lot.”
She looks like a 10-win veteran with a game that shows no inherent weaknesses. She’s long enough to compete on any venue and she works the ball with masterful creativity. The putting can be a little streaky. But so far this season, the streaks have gone the right way.“I think winning came with a little bit of new pressure, too, because I wanted to make sure people knew I didn't just come and win and after that I wasn’t very good,” she said. “This (play) is validating. I said (after the major win), ‘okay, let's go pedal to the metal, keep it going. Don't try to protect anything that you have. Your irons are good. Every part of your game is good, so just be aggressive and keep playing to get through those nerves.’
“In Portland (last year) the first time I played (after winning), just being in a twosome with Inbee (Park) was almost relaxing, almost the perfect situation for me to get back into it after the Open. She's just a really mellow and calm person to play with. But, you know, it should have made me really nervous playing with her, but it almost did the opposite.”
Then, in a reflective moment, Popov said, “I think everything has been really solid. It's kind of all come together.”
That, in a nutshell, is why you can expect to find Sophia Popov near the tops of leaderboards, and perhaps donning the colors of Europe on Solheim Cup teams, for many years to come.