Sophia Popov is a gem. Spend 30 second with the 2020 AIG Women’s Open champion and you realize that this woman could make friends in a Turkish prison. No matter what scores she’s shooting on the golf course, the 29-year-old from Germany always looks you straight in the eye and flashes the kind of inviting smile that makes you stop and pay attention.
It came as no surprise to those who know her that Popov and her now husband Max Mehles sort of eloped in the off season, telling almost no one about their nuptials until the 2022 season began with Max on Sophia’s bag for the first couple of events. That’s how they do things – tastefully, quietly, and humbly.
It was also not a shock when Popov showed up on Mehles’ bag for local U.S. Open qualifying in La Quinta, California last week where Mehles shot a 66 and earned medalist honors. Whether a player, caddie, partner, teammate or friend, Popov is always confident in her skin and in her role, whatever that is at the time.
This leads to an obvious question. What made Popov so much more than a major champion? In a world where sporting heroes often disappoint, how did Sophia become such a woman of substance?
That answer can be found walking the cart paths at many of the LPGA Tour events. Tall, blonde and athletic, Claudie Popov, Sophia’s mother surprises you by being even more engaging than her daughter. Introduce yourself to Claudia and she will greet you as if shaking your hand is the thrill of her life. And it’s not perfunctory or phony. Claudia is the opposite of a politician. She is genuinely interested in the people she meets while being quick with a restaurant recommendation or some advice on pairing a good wine.
Claudia is also the reason that Sophia, through ups and downs in her professional career, has remained confident in who she is as a person.
“My mom was kind of the driving force behind our athletic careers in that sense,” Sophia said of Claudia, who was a swimmer at Stanford University. “I'm still making a career out of it. Both my brothers were athletes. For all of us I think (seeing her) was very eye-opening in terms of what we could do and especially what we could do in college sports. If it weren't for her, I'm not sure where my journey from Germany would have gone. For most kids who grow up (in Germany) the first thing that comes to mind is not college sports in the States.”
Sophia was a stalwart on the University of Southern California Women’s Golf Team that won the NCAA Championship in 2013 and her amateur career including winning the Pac-12 Championship and the International European Ladies Amateur Championship.
“I think for me she was kind of the driving force behind (my collegiate career),” Sophia said of her mother. “She was a (college) swimmer and she said to me, ‘It's extremely competitive. It's the best steppingstone to becoming a professional athlete and getting a degree at the same time.’ I think she was a prime example of going to Stanford, swimming for the team, doing it all. She's always been a role model for me in that sense.
“She showed us that it's possible and you have a good chance. I think that's the thing. Especially coming up as an international student, you don't know what the possibilities are out there. What is the scholarship situation? How much is it going to be to get me through college?
“Obviously with Title IX (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year) I think it's been awesome just because there are so many scholarships available to girls,” Sophia said. “And I think it's very encouraging for a lot of girls coming out of high school to want to pursue a career in sports or athletics starting in college because now they have this opportunity.
“It's a way for parents to get their kids through school, especially the school that I went to which is extremely expensive. But they're all getting very expensive and it's almost impossible (to go to school and compete) without a little bit of financial help.
“I think especially on the women's side we're lucky enough to have the number of scholarships that we have, not just in golf, but in all the other sports. My mom was the one who told me about it. She said, ‘You know what? It's a possibility. It's a way to get a great education.’ In my case, I was lucky, because it was for free, which is still mindboggling to me.”
Throughout college, through five years on the Epson Tour, though tears and frustrations, health scares, comebacks, near misses, and times when she wanted to quit, Sophia had Claudia by her side giving advice that only a mother can give and sharing the experiences that only an athlete could understand.
So, happy Mother’s Day to Claudia Popov, and all the moms who make it okay for daughters and sons to pursue their dreams every day.