November 6, 2020
Sophia Popov will tell you that when playing golf, you can play relaxed or you can play stressed.
She is firmly convinced that relaxed is better.
Popov caused a big stir when seemingly out of the blue in late August she won the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon in Scotland.
The young German played for The University of Southern California and enjoyed some modest success at the professional level, but it had been awhile.
A bout with Lyme disease knocked her down, affecting her weight, her fitness, and her playing ability. However, her Open win signaled Popov had largely overcome those unwanted health challenges and was ready to show what she could do.
Popov’s victory earned her full playing privileges on the LPGA Tour, along with other opportunities. Those who watched her in the 2020 ShopRite LPGA Classic presented by Acer in early October could see a relaxed golfer comfortable in her top-level surroundings.
I followed her group for the second of four rounds. Popov started the day at 2-under par. Ally McDonald, a Mississippi State grad and 2019 American Solheim Cup member, was also at 2-under.
LPGA Tour rookie Andrea Lee was the third player. After making it through last year’s Q Series, Lee had done well in 2020 with a top 5 at the Marathon Classic, an 11th at the Scottish Open, and a 7th behind Popov at Royal Troon.
All three were in good spirits, which were on display quickly. On the second hole Popov and McDonald hit their drives long and in the center of the fairway, separated by at most a quarter inch. When I called out to ask which one hit the big drive, McDonald raised both arms in triumph.
Laughs all around, including from Popov’s proud parents Philip and Claudia, visiting from out West to watch their daughter on her birthday.
The real fireworks from the group began on the short par-5 third hole, which all three birdied. Popov’s twelve-footer slammed into the cup with a loud pop.
Those birdies started a trend. If the group were playing best ball, they would have scored a joint 11-under.
McDonald’s birdie on 4 was from 5 feet. Lee made a similar birdie on 5. McDonald made another great approach shot on 6 for an eventual birdie, and Popov coolly rolled in a 20-footer for a 2 on the par-3 7th. Lee made another long birdie putt on the 8th, earning applause from her playing companions.
Popov and McDonald both hit driver off the deck for their second shots on the short par-5 ninth hole, leading to easy birdies.
Popov’s first bogey came on the tenth, when her first putt finished two feet away. She decided to finish the hole without waiting for the others to make their attempts from further away.
Her par putt slipped past two feet, and she showed a flash of anger after making the unwanted comebacker.
Popov’s mood did not improve on the twelfth when she made another bogey. As she said later, her drive ended up “a few inches” into the fescue edges of a fairway bunker. She took a precarious stance and chipped out a few yards away. Her third shot landed on the narrow green 25 feet from the hole.
As she walked onto the green I heard a bit of quiet swearing – in German. She admitted later that being bilingual can be a good thing.
The birdies returned to the group on 13, with Lee and Popov both making up for the bogeys on 12. McDonald made a fine putt from 8 feet on 14 for yet another bird.
They all parred 15 and 16, and Popov birdied again on the short par-3 17th. Putting through what she said was “5 or 6 feet of fringe,” she made an 18-footer for another 2.
McDonald finished the group’s scoring spree on the par-5 18th. She used a fairway wood from 235 yards out to reach the front fringe. Her third shot stopped a foot from the hole for an easy birdie. The Mississippian shot 67 for the day, 68 in the third round, and even-par 71 in the last round for a tie for 13th.
She has continued to play well. On Oct. 22 McDonald won her first-ever title at this level, the LPGA Drive On Championship held at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia.
Lee finished her second round at 1-under par and said, “I definitely left some shots out there.” She shot another 70 in the third round but posted a 78 in the last round to finish in 72d place.
Popov’s second round totaled 68. She followed up the next day with a 69 and stumbled a bit in the final round with a +4 75, a tie for 43d.
That kind of finish might have been worrying several months ago. After her AIG Women’s Open triumph, however, I tend to think Popov did not stress over it.