Tour Confidential: Did golf just crown the most improbable major winner ever?

Sophia Popov

Sophia Popov's victory at the Women's Open was her first LPGA win.

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Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week we discuss Sophia Popov’s victory at the Women’s Open, Dustin Johnson’s legacy, Phil Mickelson’s Champions Tour debut and more.

1. Sophia Popov went from caddying at the start of the LPGA restart to winning the Women’s Open, prevailing by two strokes over Jasmine Suwannapura in difficult conditions at Royal Troon. Popov, who was ranked 304th in the world heading into the week, joins 2003 Open Championship winner Ben Curtis as the only players to win a major while ranked outside of the top 300. Where does Popov’s victory rank among the all-time improbable major winners?

Sophia Popov
How Sophia Popov went from caddying to winning the Women’s Open
By: Nick Piastowski

Josh Sens, senior writer (@JoshSens): That was epic. Like, Francis Ouimet underdog-hero stuff. In a way, it was almost more impressive than Curtis’ great win, as she started the final day with the lead. That’s a ton of pressure, and a different path to victory than what we saw from Curtis, who was playing well ahead of the leaders and got to post a score early in tough conditions. That’s not to take away from Curtis’ win. Only to marvel all the more at Popov’s.

Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): It made me think back to those pictures of Francesco Molinari caddying for his brother at the Masters a few years back, which resurfaced when he played in the final group last year. The thing about Molinari, though, is that his playing career was never in nearly so much doubt as Popov’s. She nearly quit the game just last year! Big ups to her — she was relentless down the stretch.

Nick Piastowski, senior editor (@nickpia): Man, you could make a case for most improbable. John Daly’s win at the 1991 PGA comes to mind – he had been the ninth alternate at the start of the week – and there have been numerous other out-of-nowheres in history. But Popov didn’t even have LPGA status and made the tournament only after tying for ninth at the Marathon LPGA Classic two weeks ago – and she played in that only after the tournament couldn’t fill the field due to the pandemic. Pretty incredible.  

Josh Berhow, managing editor (@joshberhow): It’s right up there with some of the best, but I think what makes it really stand out is just how she did it. This wasn’t a little-wind, short-sleeve birdie-fest. This was cold, rainy and windy with all the gnarly fescue and unpredictability of the ground game that makes major links golf great. I think it’s one thing for an unknown player to get hot and run off birdie after birdie and put up a couple of low-60 numbers to snag a major, but I think it’s an entirely different mental test when you are battling the elements and grinding for pars. It’s more taxing. (Four straight rounds of even-par would have been good enough for fifth place!) And to me that’s why I think this is even more impressive for a golfer who was playing for everything with little to fall back on. It was fantastic.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer: Jack Fleck beating Hogan in that playoff at Olympic might top it. But it was great golf.

2. Among the other standouts at the Women’s Open (if the social-media raves were any indication) was Royal Troon, which forced the players to play a full arsenal of shots in wild and windy conditions. Given the buzz around the event, would the LPGA be wise to stage more tournaments on the classic links courses of the U.K.?

Sens: Absolutely. Anytime any Tour has an opportunity to hold an event on a great links, it should jump at the chance.

Dethier: Every tour should aspire to play more tournaments on classic links courses in the U.K. We get morning golf. Windy golf. Clever golf. Random, tricky, hilarious golf. Royal Troon was brutish on Thursday and Friday and yielded more on the weekend. It was terrific to watch and had me looking up Scottish golf trips while I took it in.

Piastowski: Variety is the spice of life, right? I’m for it. Players needed every club in the bag and every shot in the bag to win, which should be what you’d expect from a major championship. Yes, the wind and elements inflated the scores a bit, but no one was immune. When it was over, you really got the sense that Popov was most deserving.

Berhow: The LPGA markets itself as a global tour and does a great job already with stops across the U.S., Asia, Australia and more, but a few more stops in Scotland or England would be very well-received. I’d watch every event on those types of links courses, but that’s also because we just don’t see as much of it here in the States.

Bamberger: Seaside golf, golf in the wind, golf on firm greens is, I think, more enjoyable to play and more enjoyable to watch and more challenging. It’s not by any means the only form of golf. But I’d welcome the chance to see more of it (and play more of it, too).

3. Dustin Johnson obliterated the field at the Northern Trust, finishing at 30-under and 11 shots ahead of Harris English. It’s fashionable to tweak Johnson for his lack of major titles (one, the 2016 U.S. Open, paired with four runner-up finishes), but his win at TPC Boston was his 22nd career title, meaning Johnson, who is 36, has won more tournaments than Phil Mickelson had through the same number of Tour starts. You’d also have a hard time finding a player who has been more consistent over the past decade-plus, with Johnson picking up at least one win in all but one calendar year since 2008 (2014 was the outlier). How would you encapsulate Johnson’s career to this point?

Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson ‘capitalizes’ at the Northern Trust to win at TPC Boston
By: Nick Piastowski

Sens: Ridiculous displays of dominance mixed with bizarre misfortunes and periodic brain cramps. Everything from the waste-area mishap at Whistling Straits to the slip down the stairs on the eve of the 2017 Masters when he was world No. 1 and a heavy favorite to win. That he has only one major is maybe the wackiest of the many weird things that have happened to him.

Dethier: Well put. What’s crazy to me is just how much another major championship — just one more! — would elevate his resume. When I think of Johnson’s wins, I think of their sheer dominance, and with all the other stars taking turns at world No. 1, we lost track of him for a little while. Not anymore. It feels like gravity has brought DJ back to the top spot, right where he belongs. 

Piastowski: Maybe it’s just best said this way. Golf is really hard. I think this is fair to DJ. In listening to the players, you get the sense that they believe he’s been, quite possibly, one of the top three or so most talented players, putter to driver, on Tour. Long and accurate off the tee. Long and accurate with his irons. Good with the flatstick. And the regular-season victories reflect that. And four times a year over his career, something just wasn’t just quite right. Now, could he have managed certain scenarios differently? Yeah. Yeah … we do wonder what coulda been. He’ll go down as one of the best ever. And, yeah, golf is really hard.

Bamberger: He is his era’s Tom Weiskopf, without Weiskopf’s style or charm or charisma. He’s a mega-talent who can win on any course, if he can make short putts as he has been. He might surprise us. He might win another major. Either way, his career will finish in the Hall of Fame. You hope Weiskopf gets in before him, though.

Berhow: His career has been outstanding, and adding, say, two more majors, would make it quite remarkable. His performance at TPC Boston and every other time he’s playing his best really just prove how good his A-game is. It’s on another level. He’ll also be remembered for lots of close calls at majors, but at the same time, that’s what makes him so relatable. Winning in golf, in life, is hard. Losses happen more than wins.

4. In the second round at TPC Boston, Johnson was a mind-bending 11 under through 11 holes and seemingly bound for his first-career 59, if not a 58 or 57. But needing to play the final seven holes in just 1-under to post golf’s magical number, Johnson made seven straight pars to shoot 60. It must be asked: Was DJ’s 60 more dazzling – or disappointing? 

Sens: Both. And in that sense, something of a microcosm of his career.

Dethier: I think what’s overlooked there is just how much easier the opening stretch was at TPC Boston than the finishing portion. Still, it was a bummer watching him pull the wrong club off the tee on 18 (driver instead of 3-wood), leading to an overly conservative layup, which ultimately protected his 60. To answer the question, though, it was ultimately disappointing — but only because our expectations are ridiculous and Tour players have broken our brains.

Piastowski: See my answer to question 3! This really does encapsulate DJ’s career in a way, doesn’t it? We were all imagining what coulda been after he was 11-under through 11. Was he actually gonna shoot 12-under 59? 14-under? Shoot, let’s go to 18-under! Then he parred the final seven holes, and he shot maybe the worst 60 ever, right? That’s just so funny to write. Worst 60. This well-seasoned, perfectly cooked filet mignon is actually a half-ounce smaller than I asked for. I hate it. Haha. Golf is hard.

Bamberger: Dazzling. If that’s the choice, dazzling. The proof is that we’re talking about it. Especially the first 11. 

Berhow: It was disappointingly dazzling.

5. In the same round that Johnson posted a 60, Scottie Scheffler, earlier in the day, signed for a 12-under 59, becoming the 12th player in PGA Tour history to break 60. Justin Thomas believes players can and will go lower still, predicting “a 56 or 57 or 58 on Tour, whether it’s next couple years or 10 or 15 years,” He added: “We’re all getting so much better, and especially if you get a place like this with really good greens, and if it’s soft, we’re pretty good with our distance control and pretty good at golf to where we get it rolling, who knows what can happen.” Do you agree? Is a 56 out there?

Scottie Scheffler
Why Justin Thomas thinks 59 (or even 58!) might soon not be good enough
By: Nick Piastowski

Sens: In theory, sure. DJ was well within reach. But the fact that he didn’t get there underscores how elusive a number like that is going to be. It’s like Mars, I guess. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean mortals will be landing there anytime soon.

Dethier: I guess so. I mean, we’ve heard tell of scores as low as 55 in the wild. But to do that on a PGA Tour course still seems pretty unlikely — even if you never miss a shot, you need a heck of a lot of things to go right to shoot 56. But yeah, these guys keep getting better and better and better, no doubt about it.

Piastowski: Yes. This age of players is that good. The scores have been trending low, as have the extremes. Now add the fact that there’s a generation below that’s watching someone like Bryson break down every angle of his clubs, course and body in search of every edge, and I kinda think there might even be the perfect game out there – 18 holes, 18-under. It would need a golf-ier name, though. Great-teen holes? Golden Tee-rrific. OK, I’ll go to the next question now. 

Bamberger: Unless course setups change radically, or equipment changes, radically, yes, there will be scores of 58 followed by 57 and eventually 56 in the next 10 to 20 years. A 56 will be like shooting 10-under on what is actually a par-66 course, no matter what you call it. No par-5s, and everything under 400 drivable.

Berhow: Yeah, Dustin proved it could happen, and Justin Thomas is right about the greens, which you never really think about. If the greens are pure and pros leave themselves constant putts of 12 feet or less, they are going to make a ton of them when they get hot. When we read greens, we guess the break; these guys have it down to more of a science (so technically they are just way better at guessing than we are).

6. Phil Mickelson, who just a few months ago didn’t seem destined for the Champions Tour anytime soon (“When I stop hitting bombs I’ll play the Champions Tour, but I’m hitting some crazy bombs right now,” he said in January), will make his debut on the 50-and-over circuit in the Ozarks this week. Are you surprised to see Mickelson moonlighting out there so soon?

Phil Mickelson
Phil Mickelson’s season isn’t over — he’s making his Champions Tour debut next week
By: Sean Zak

Sens: Not really. A lot of factors go into a decision like that. A gap in a schedule opens. A financial incentive appears. Maybe that all syncs up at a property owned by a guy (in this case, Johnny Morris) with a lot of industry pull. And on and on. All of those appear to have aligned for Phil in this case.

Dethier: Phil likes to play, he likes to talk smack and he likes to win. He’ll be the big man on campus right away when he tees it up on the Champions Tour, and he’ll bring plenty of attention with him, too.

Piastowski: Not really. An opportunity to play competitively and win cash and build the coffee brand? Phil’s in. But … I woulda LOVED to have seen him moonlighting in the broadcast booth. Playing does keep him sharp for Winged Foot, though. 

Bamberger: My guess is that Phil is setting himself up for next year, to be the first-ever calendar-year winner of the senior golf Triple Crown: U.S. Senior Open, Senior British Open, Senior PGA Championship. He can do it ahead of Tiger.  

Berhow: No. I mentioned in this same space back in June, when he turned 50, that a few spot starts for him on the Champ Tour would go a long way for that circuit. He knows all of the guys there and can be competitive immediately. It’s a win-win. He can still contend on the PGA Tour if he has a good week too.

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