After a Cinderella British Open win, a new star adjusts to golf’s majors

By Bill Fields

It was well past midnight in Scotland by the time Sophia Popov FaceTimed with her parents, Philipp and Claudia, and older brothers Alex and Nicholas after winning the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon Golf Club in August.

The victory by Popov, then ranked 304th, shocked the golf world. It wasn’t just that she had claimed a major title following a handful of meager seasons as a professional, but how impervious the 27-year-old had seemed to the final-round pressure on one of the world’s famous courses.

“There was a lot of joy and excitement on that call,” said her brother Alex, 31. “We were super happy for her because she is super deserving. She had the skills. It was just a matter of getting over the hump and believing in herself.”

Popov, who turned 28 last week, is a player to watch in the Women’s PGA Championship, which began Thursday at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa., a Philadelphia exurb. After seemingly coming from nowhere to win at Royal Troon, Popov’s ascendance was briefly halted by missing the ANA Inspiration — the second major on the reshuffled 2020 schedule — when the LPGA didn’t offer her an exemption to the already determined field. Having soared to No. 25 in the world rankings and possessing a two-year exemption on the LPGA Tour, Popov is adjusting to her new status entering only the fifth major of her career.

“It’s been crazy, a little bit of a whirlwind,” Popov said. “Winning the Open was surprising not just to everyone else but to me, too. I’ve been trying to let it soak in while at the same time having a lot more on my plate. It’s changed my life in a really great way. I still wake up and can’t quite believe where I’m at now opposed to six weeks ago.”

Six months ago, Popov was competing on the Cactus Tour, an Arizona-based circuit for fledgling women’s golf pros. Before that, she had competed on the Symetra Tour, the developmental arm, after having lost exempt status on the LPGA Tour, but it and most of the world’s other major golf tours were on hiatus because of COVID-19. Employing safeguards like cup liners and individual riding carts, the Cactus Tour played on.

Popov holds dual American and German citizenship, so when she wasn’t playing in lower tier events, she worked hard on her game and fitness in Arizona, where her parents have a home and she spends time when not at her Florida residence. “She treated it like a little boot camp for two or three months,” Rob Rashell, her swing coach, said.

Beyond getting in reps, Popov rediscovered her winning touch, claiming her first professional trophy at a tournament in mid-April and then taking two of the tour’s next five events. “It was important because I hadn’t won in six years, since I was a senior in college,” said Popov, who played at Southern California. By the time the larger tours resumed this summer, Popov had a dozen Cactus Tour events under her belt and renewed confidence.

“There is a craft to playing and winning no matter the stage,” said Rashell, who has worked with Popov since the spring of 2019. “You have to beat the players that are around you down the stretch. You have to get used to how that feels. There is pressure regardless of where you’re playing.”

For the first two rounds at Royal Troon, the field battled severe weather conditions — the wind was so strong Popov had to use a 4-iron from 126 yards on her approach to No. 1 the first day — that tested strategy and resolve.

Not only was Popov buoyed by her trio of mini-tour victories but also from caddying this summer for fellow player and good friend Anne van Dam, a Dutch professional, in an LPGA event at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. Popov had urged van Dam to make conservative choices she often had eschewed when playing herself. “I thought a lot more about strategic things as caddie than as a player,” Popov said. “Sometimes you don’t need to be that aggressive, don’t need to go right for the flag.”

As Rashell watched the television broadcasts of the Open, he was struck by Popov’s distance control. “It was amazing how many times she hit the ball pin-high,” Rashell said. “Tiger Woods has talked about that. If you can get the ball to fly the distance you want, even if you’re a little right or left, it’s a superpower in golf.”

Popov’s competitive instincts were groomed early in her life trying to keep up with her older siblings in a sports-loving family that pursued activities regardless of the season. “Between the three of us, it was always a competition,” said Nicholas, 30, who swam at the University of Arizona. “If you aren’t first, you’re last. Sophia wanted to beat us whether it was sports, academics or a card game.”

Popov’s mother was on the swim team at Stanford. Her maternal grandmother, Sabine Schwarzer, qualified to represent West Germany in the high jump at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome but, recovering from an injury and already having moved to the United States where her fiancé, Dieter, had relocated, she did not compete. As a tall teenager in the 1950s, Sabine was recruited to join her brother, Albrecht, at track and field practice.

“I saw the girls doing high-jumping, a meter 25, not even to your hips,” Schwarzer said. “I pulled up my skirt, pushed off my shoes and jumped over just like that. I thought, ‘What’s so hard about this?’”

As her granddaughter was clearing a new bar at the British Women’s Open, Schwarzer couldn’t get the telecast on her TV at home on Nantucket. She hustled over to a friend’s house. “I needed to watch the golf. And we went crazy when Sophia won.”

A talented golfer had fulfilled long-held potential.

“Mentally, it was a huge breakthrough,” Popov said. “I’ve always battled the game between the ears more than anything else my whole golf career. For me that was the most important thing. But I still had to execute”

Popov’s $675,000 winner’s share didn’t count as official earnings because she wasn’t an LPGA member. It almost didn’t seem real when the funds were deposited in her bank account.

“It came later in the week and you look at it and go, ‘Man, it feels like something illegal is happening on your account,’” Popov said.

But like the career-changing victory itself, the money is totally on the up and up.

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