Aug 23: Germany’s Sophia Popov scripted an unlikely dream story as she rose from a player without a status on either LPGA or the Ladies European Tour to win one of the biggest prizes in women’s golf, as she won the AIG Women’s Open at Troon in Scotland.
Ranked 304th prior to this week, the 27-year-old Popov came into the event on the strength of a Top-10 finish at the LPGA”s Marathon Classic two weeks ago. She held her nerve to shoot a final round of three-under 68 to total seven-under 277 and win by two shots over Thailand’s Thidappa ‘Jasmine’ Suwannapura (67). Australia’s Minjee Lee (69) was third at three-under during a week when only five players totalled under par and only six played par or better at the famous Ayrshire links.
Popov became the first German woman to win a Major, and only the third, male or female, after Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer, to win a Major.
Popov revealed that her little-known career was full of struggles, including health problems. Till three months ago she was playing on a mini Tour, the Cactus Tour, in Arizona, US, the only place where competitive golf was still on during the Covid-19 pandemic.
She won three times in nine starts on Cactus Tour and her total prize for the three wins was $ 8,800, while she scooped $ 675,000 and then during an emotional and virtual press conference she told this writer that she did not even know what the winner’s cheque was worth.
Popov can now enjoy a life-changing triumph after her superb play in Scotland. “It is yet to sink in and I thank my boyfriend, who was on the bag, for keeping me calm,” she added.
Popov, whose previous appearance in the AIG Women’s Open was as an amateur in 2011, said of her brilliant win, “It feels amazing. There’s a lot of hard work behind it, and a lot of struggles that I went through the last six years, especially health-wise [Lyme disease]. I’m glad I stuck with it.
“I knew my game was in really good shape. I know anything’s possible and I think I took that belief with me to every round, but I never expected this. Obviously, I was nervous the whole round and I’m just so glad I could get it done.
“I guess it is an incredible story and I think, just personally for me, that’s why I broke down on the 18th hole because it’s been something I couldn’t have dreamed of just a week ago.”
Suwannapura produced her best-ever Major display to finish runner-up on five-under, with Minjee Lee from Australia third and the 2015 champion, Inbee Park was fourth.
For some time on the front nine, it seemed Suwannapura was going to challenge Popov. The German bogeyed the opening hole to immediately give the field hope yet responded with back-to-back birdies to extend her lead to four. Suwannapura went on a brilliant run of four birdies from the 4th to close the gap to just one shot, but again Popov hit back with a birdie at the 6th.
Suwannapura faltered with dropped shots at the 11th and 13th on her way to a fine 67 and when Popov found birdies at the 15th and 16th, she was able to cruise to victory before breaking down in tears after her final bogey putt dropped.
A week before her Top-10 at Marathon Classic, Popov caddied for her close friend Anne van Dam at the LPGA’s recent Drive On Championship. She said, “The last two holes, I could take it in a little bit and I looked around and it’s just so beautiful, such an amazing course. I grew up playing the Women’s Amateur, the Girls’ Amateur and I honestly like the weather, except for I get really cold.
“Considering everything we have to deal with right now with COVID-19, the way we were taken care of was just incredible, and I want to say ‘thank you’ for that. We’ve been extremely privileged.”
World No. 8 Lee was unable to make a sustained challenge even as her round included an incredible up-and-down for par at the Postage Stamp, as the Par-3 eighth hole is called. She shot 69.
Park posted seven birdies in a round of five-under 66 to share the lowest round of the week, with American Austin Ernst fifth on level-par and Japan’s Momoko Ueda sixth on one-over
The AIG Women’s Open made its debut on the prestigious links of Royal Troon, which has hosted The Open on nine occasions, most recently in 2016 when Sweden’s Henrik Stenson triumphed.
Suwannapura said, “I just did my best today, to be honest. I tried to play my own game and make some putts, make some birdies and you can move on if you played good. The golf course was not that easy, so I was pleased to play well. I hit a lot of good shots and made a lot of putts and, overall, I’m happy about this week for sure. You can’t be any happier, playing Royal Troon in Scotland, one of the best courses.”
Minjee Lee added, “To be honest, Sophia played so well pretty much all day, and whenever she looked like she was going to make bogey, she would make a par putt, and she made a lot of birdies out there. I don’t think anybody could have beaten her today.”