Sophia Popov was on the verge of giving it all up. Then came the series of incidents that led to her playing in the AIG Women's Open
We’ve all done it. We’ve all wondered if what we’re doing with our lives is right for us. Is it worth it? Will I make a difference in the world? Will I ever get to the very top of my profession?
For sports stars it’s a daily grind. You don’t get to be one of the best athletes on the planet by chance, or the family you were born into, or where you’re from. It’s why we love an underdog story. It’s why we embrace those classic, almost cliched tales of old fashioned hard work, grit, and determination.
And it’s why so many are gripped to the final rounds of the Open and AIG Women’s Open year in year out, Britain’s two biggest golf tournaments have a tendency to throw out a surprise winner. In the last 13 months the latter, in particular, has introduced the world to Hinako Shibuno – who triumphed at Woburn in her very first tournament outside her native Japan – and Sophia Popov – who teed up at Royal Troon as the World No 304.
But, in Popov’s case, it would never have happened if the German had gone ahead with plans to quit the game last year.
“If you ask my family members or boyfriend they would tell you of multiple occasions where I was ready to hang it all up and say that maybe this is not the way my life is supposed to be going and perhaps maybe I should be looking at other stuff,” she explained.
“It was pretty serious. At the end of last year I did look into other options – like maybe going into broadcast. That’s been my post-golf dream since I graduated from college and I was seriously debating it.
“I said, ‘Right, I’m turning 28 this year’ and set myself that classic ‘if nothing happens by the time I turn 30’ target for when I should look into some other stuff.
“Also, being a female professional athlete is not that easy, because you have other timelines going on in your life too, so you need to seriously debate whether it’s lucrative and it makes sense.”
It certainly was a lucrative decision to stick with it. Before flying to Scotland, Popov had earned $108,000 in her LPGA career. She left with a winner’s cheque for $675,000.
Popov’s tale from rock bottom to major champion is as ridiculous as it is inspiring. She battled Lyme disease for years and the chronic fatigue that comes with it took its toll.
Popov lost her LPGA Tour card as a result and missed out on regaining it by a single shot at Q-Series. A second year on the Symetra Tour beckoned.
“I took a bit of a break after that and just wanted to do some other stuff and really take my mind off golf,” she explains.
“After four or five weeks I thought about how you work for a certain goal your whole life and you just haven’t reached what you’re capable of. It’s really hard to quit because you think, ‘What if? What if there’s that little chance that something could change?'”
That chance, bizarrely, came in the shape of a global pandemic. After several months off, the LPGA returned for a two-week stint at Inverness Club in Ohio. For the first week at the Drive-On Championship, Popov caddied for her friend Anne van Dam. In the second week, with many of the big names – particularly those based in Asia – staying away, Popov found herself in a field made up largely of Symetra Tour players.
She tied for 9th and had booked her spot at the first women’s major of 2020.
But it was a struggle to get here – a point not lost on Popov.
“It’s why this means so much more to me than if this had happened three or four years ago,” she adds.
“I set myself that deadline for when I turn 30, but I’m glad I took care of that really quickly.”
The celebrations were dampened slightly when a representative of the LPGA contacted Popov to inform her that she won’t be getting the usual five-year exemption offered to major champions. The reason? She’s not a full LPGA Tour member. Those without that status are granted one year’s exemption.
“It’s tough because I feel like I deserve the full five years of exemption from the LPGA,” she told Golf.com. “But at the same time I understand the regulations and the fact that they can’t change the rules for a certain player.”
For now though she can enjoy the fact she’s the 24th best player on the planet with next year’s Solheim Cup in her sights. “That is my ultimate dream,” she admits.
But before that is the small matter of defending her AIG Women’s Open title at Carnoustie where, incidentally, she made her major championship debut as an amateur in 2011. “I love Carnoustie,” she says with a smile. “But I really don’t want to give up this trophy.”
- Related: What’s in Popov’s bag?