Surprise major-winner Sophia Popov confronting an unexpected dilemma

sophia popov rolls putt

Sophia Popov won the Women's Open Championship as one of golf's all-time underdog stories.

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Roughly nine months before she stunned the golf world by winning the Women’s Open, Sophia Popov made what might go down as the most consequential bogey of her career.

In the eighth and final round of the LPGA Qualifying Series, at Pinehurst No. 9, Popov made a 5 on the par-4 18th hole that cost her her LPGA Tour card. The slip-up had dropped her from a tie for 41st (good enough to squeeze by as one of the top 45 who keep their cards) into a tie for 46th (on the outside looking in).

Popov, who won a national championship with USC and is one of a pair of four-time All-Americans in the program’s history, was disappointed. After four years in the big show, she’d been relegated to the Symetra Tour, the LPGA’s developmental series, for the 2020 season.

Fast-forward to a grey, blustery evening at Royal Troon, site of the 2020 AIG Women’s Open, where Popov made what might go down as the most memorable bogey of her career.

Last Sunday, shortly after 5:30 p.m. local time, Popov tapped in for 5 on the par-4 18th hole to become a major champion. The 27-year-old, who was born in the United States but raised and still lives in Germany, had become one of the game’s all-time Cinderella stories, joining Ben Curtis as the only golfers ever to win a major championship while ranked outside of the top 300 in the world.

With her three-stroke victory at the Women’s Open, Popov had more than quintupled her career earnings and solidified a lifetime exemption into the event. Popov also thought she had earned another priceless bonus: the five-year LPGA exemption awarded to major winners.

Popov’s emotional Women’s Open victory placed her in rarified air among major champions.

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But her thinking changed when she was contacted by an LPGA official shortly after the trophy presentation. The official informed Popov that she fell on the wrong side of a rarely employed rule that states only major winners who are current LPGA members are eligible for the five-year exemption.

As a Symetra Tour member at the time of her victory, Popov would be granted an exemption only for the remainder of this season and the entirety of the 2021 season. (In another cruel twist, Popov is not eligible for the second major of the year, the ANA Inspiration, because that event was originally slated for April.)  

“I definitely got a little bit frustrated about the whole thing,” Popov told GOLF.com a couple of days after her win. “It’s tough because I feel like I deserve the full five years of exemption from the LPGA, but at the same time, I understand the regulations and the fact that they can’t change the rules for a certain player.”

It doesn’t matter that she played on tour for four years, or that she missed the cut in Q-Series by a single stroke. And, in fairness to the LPGA, she understands that rules are rules.

“The only reason why I really feel this way is because I had already played so many seasons on the LPGA Tour,” she said. “I felt like, really? Just because I finished one shot short of getting my status last year at Q-Series, you’re going to take away four of the years I should have gotten?”

Popov said she and her manager have been in contact with LPGA officials. The Tour has told her they’re sympathetic to her situation but there is little wiggle room to make an exception.

“It’s a tough situation because I know they’re on my side and they support me and they want that for me too, but they have to be fair to all players and all of the major winners, so I do also understand their perspective,” she said.

Sophia Popov could be ineligible to receive a full major exemption despite her victory.

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When reached for comment by GOLF.com, the LPGA referenced the rules laid out in its 2020 Player Priority List.

Popov has two choices: accept the rule or file an appeal. If she elects to dispute it, she could cite Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson in her defense. In the mid-2010s, LPGA officials granted unique membership waivers to both players so they could circumvent the Tour’s age requirement.

Popov said she’s still mulling her options.

“I definitely was thinking about appealing that and talking it out with the LPGA because, even if you could negotiate a couple more years than just the done, I feel like I deserve that,” she said. “But the rules are the rules, and I have such a good relationship with everyone at the LPGA and they’re always doing the best they can with all the information they have at hand.”

Even if the result doesn’t change, Popov says she’s not concerned. She knows she’s fully in control of her own destiny.

“I do have the confidence in myself and my ability to extend my status and my ability,” Popov said. “I don’t like to look that far ahead anyway. Everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen. If you keep your status, amazing. If you don’t, you don’t. I’m really excited for the next year and a half.”

Sophia Popov

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As well she should be.

It’s not hard to imagine Popov’s winning week in Troon altering her career trajectory. A highly touted junior and college player whose professional career has been derailed by injury and inconsistency, Popov is now a major winner who knows she has the game and resolve to beat the world’s best players on the game’s biggest stages.

“It was just an emotional rollercoaster, even if you couldn’t see from the outside,” Popov said of her victory in Scotland. “I was thinking about everything that’s happened over the last five or six years, and how much life can change in a week.”

Actually, Popov’s life — or at least her confidence —began to change back in March, when the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic led to an impromptu offseason.

“The pandemic hit and I was in a not-so-great mental space because I knew I’d have to play Symetra Tour for another year after this season before I could get my LPGA Tour status back,” she said. “When I talked to my mom I said, ‘I just don’t know if I can do this again.’”

After some prodding from her inner circle, Popov decided to double down. She entered a series of events on the Cactus Tour, which attracted a slew of Arizona-based pros hungry for competitive golf during the layoff.

A few weeks later, on April 15, she notched her first win. The winner’s check was worth only $2,500, but it represented something far bigger.

“It was a little bit like I broke through this barrier, this mental hurdle that I had of winning tournaments — I hadn’t won since college,” she said. “Mentally, I started being in a way better spot, and then the golf game was piecing itself together.”

Popov would win three more times on the Cactus Tour, amassing not quite $9,000 in earnings — a pittance next to the $675,000 she earned at the Women’s Open. 

But the experience was invaluable. When she came down the stretch at the Women’s Open, Popov said she leaned on her success on the Cactus Tour to close out the win.

A win that changes everything. Now and forever.

“I talked to a friend earlier on and said, ‘If I decided to retire today, for the rest of my life I can always call myself a Women’s Open champion,’” Popov said. “It’s crazy because nobody’s going to take that away from me.”

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