When the hitherto unheralded Sophia Popov won the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon last summer, those staffing the air traffic control centre at nearby Prestwick probably started thumping and dunting their computers and contraptions in a startled frenzy to make sure the things were working properly.
At a lowly 304th in the world, and with no status on the LPGA Tour, Popov arrived in Ayrshire from Arizona just in time for one practice round but ended up winning the title by two shots.
Given that she had been on the brink of quitting golf after a complicated and prolonged battle with Lyme Disease, it was a wonderfully uplifting tale of triumph over adversity.
Here in 2021, Popov is perched at No 23 in the world, she’s heading for the Olympics and a Solheim Cup debut beckons. Oh, and there’s the small matter of defending that AIG Women’s Open title at Carnoustie. The return journey to Scottish soil is one the 28-year-old German is relishing.
“The last time I landed at Edinburgh Airport, the guy at the immigration desk said, ‘what are you here for?’ and I said, ‘I’m playing in the Women’s Open’,” recalled Popov. “He started talking to me for about 20 minutes about it because he knew how big the tournament was. That’s the kind of love and passion for golf that I wish I saw in every single country that we set foot in.”
The chin-wag at passport control could be even longer this year if the same gentleman is on duty. Having been thrust into the spotlight with her thrilling victory at Troon, Popov has embraced everything that comes with being a major champion.
“I’ve been playing with a different sense of confidence and enjoyment,” added Popov, who has posted a runners-up finish and two other top-10s during another profitable campaign that has been in stark contrast to the early years of toil.
“I can finally unleash my full potential because I’m not afraid of the consequences. I’ve got to be the player I’ve wanted to be for so long.
“It’s been fun to play almost every week, to decide where and when I play and focus on the bigger events.”
The Women’s Open is just one of a series of big events for Popov but Carnoustie, that great, demanding championship links, holds no fears for her. She made her debut in the Women’s Open there as an amateur in 2011 and made the cut while she returned to Angus the following year to play in the Women’s Amateur Championship.
“I can remember exactly what I felt like on that first tee at 6.30 am,” she reflected of that maiden major outing a decade ago. “It was quiet and very serene and I was thinking, ‘I know exactly what this course can be like so take every opportunity when the wind isn’t blowing’. I’ve seen it at its toughest and I’ve seen it when it’s not quite as tough. I’m not quite sure what I hope for this year.”
Locking up a place in Catriona Matthew’s European Solheim Cup team would really gild the lily for Popov. In 2015, after a largely deflating rookie season hamstrung by illness, Popov was asked to do some commentary work for German television as the biennial battle between Europe and the USA took place in her native land and at her home course of St Leon-Rot.
It was an eye-opening week and one which provided her with a new sense of purpose.
“I’d had a rough year on the tour but the opportunity to commentate on the Solheim Cup was something very dear to me,” she said. “When I saw the emotions that come with winning the Solheim Cup it made me realise that I wasn’t done playing this game.
That was my goal right there in a nutshell. It motivated me to keep going and play better golf. It’s been a crazy transition but commentating that week was a huge point in the process of motivating me to get to the point where I am now.
“The moment I won the Women’s Open last year, the Solheim Cup was at the forefront of my thinking. I’m sure standing on the first tee of a Solheim Cup will be a lot more nervous than commentating on it.”