Sophia Popov marked her ball a few inches from the hole on the 18th green, pulled the brim of her cap over her face and began to cry in the arms of her caddie.
The realization had finally hit her. Against all the odds, she was about to become a major champion.
Moments later and still wiping away tears, Popov tapped in the putt to complete a two-stroke victory at Royal Troon in Scotland and another fairy-tale story at the Women’s British Open.
Ranked No. 304, Popov had never won a senior professional event before. She lost her card on the LPGA Tour at the end of last year and only qualified for the British Open via a top-10 finish two weeks ago at the Marathon Classic, which she was playing only because higher-ranked players couldn’t attend due to COVID-19 restrictions.
This was just Popov’s fourth appearance at a major. And, as she would later reveal in public for the first time, she has been bothered by health issues for the past six years, notably Lyme disease.
No wonder the emotions flowed after shooting 3-under 68 to finish ahead of Jasmine Suwannapura of Thailand (67) and become the first female golfer from Germany to win a major title. It is a life-changing victory, not least because the winner’s cheque of $675,000 US is more than six times her entire career earnings before Sunday.
“There’s a lot of hard work behind this, a lot of struggles I went through, especially health-wise,” the 27-year-old Popov said in the presentation ceremony.
Missed 10-foot par putt
“I had a lot of obstacles thrown in my way so I’m glad I stuck with it. I almost quit playing last year — thank God I didn’t.”
On a rare still day on the links in southwest Scotland, Popov began with a three-stroke lead but drove into bunker on the first hole and missed a 10-foot par putt.
She barely made a mistake after that.
Popov pumped her fist after rolling in a birdie putt from 8 feet at the second hole, then made another from a similar distance at No. 3.
Suwannapura, who also would have been an improbable winner with a ranking of No. 138, made four straight birdies from No. 4 to move within one stroke of the lead but it was the closest she came.
Birdies by Popov at Nos. 15 and 16 were greeted with furious fist pumps and left her on the brink. She held her nerve on the final two holes, parring No. 17 and then playing No. 18 cautiously to leave herself three putts to be champion.
She only needed two.
“It is an incredible story personally for me,” Popov said. “That’s why I think I broke down on the 18th hole because it has been something I couldn’t have dreamed of just a week ago.
Performance could be inspiration to others
“It’s incredible that golf allows for these things to happen … I pretty much had the week of my life.”
It was the second straight upset win at the Women’s British Open. Last year, 20-year-old Japanese player Hinako Shibuno triumphed when playing her first event outside her native country.
This was the first women’s major of a pandemic-disrupted year. It was played without spectators at Troon because of coronavirus restrictions, with Popov only arriving on Tuesday having played on the second-tier Symetra Tour last week.
Just three weeks ago, Popov was ranked No. 390 and pushing a trolley for her best friend, Anne van Dam, at the Drive On Championship in the LPGA’s restart. She’s now a major champion and feels her success can be an inspiration to others whose careers are in a slump.
“Of course there is an elite amount of players that are always there and in contention,” she said. “But there are so many other players out there who can make it in any given week, and I want them to have the confidence they can do it, too.”
No. 8-ranked Minjee Lee, who played with Popov in the final pairing, finished third on 3 under after a round of 69.
Seven-time major champion Inbee Park was the only other player to finish the tournament under par, a 66 leaving her on 1 under and in fourth place.