A caddie carries a bag. A caddie carries their player. Their eyes and ears are just not on the course. A caddie brings their player higher when they are low, and keeps them lower when they are high. They are carriers. They are cool.
Sophia Popov was Anne Van Dam’s caddie at the start of the month. The LPGA Tour was restarting after its coronavirus hiatus, Van Dam’s caddie was in the Netherlands, and Van Dam asked Popov, who she met in junior golf a decade ago, if she would carry. Popov walked with Van Dam over three days at the Drive On Championship at Inverness Club.
“I thought about the course a little bit more from a caddie perspective,” Popov recently told Golfweek. “I said, ‘What is the smart decision to make here?’ You know, I’m someone who tends to be very aggressive. I go at pins. But do you have to be? No, not really.”
Popov was a caddie. She is now the Women’s Open champion. Cool then. Cool now.
She was tied for second after two rounds at Royal Troon. She jumped to a three-shot lead after a 4-under 67 third round. She finished with a two-shot win after a 3-under 68 fourth round. That’s a seven-under weekend at a major championship from a player who had been ranked No. 304 in the world (and now will go higher). From a player who had no status on the LPGA Tour (and now does). From a player who had $108,000 in career LPGA earnings (and now has $783,051). From a player who has battled Lyme disease and, at times, considered quitting (and persevered). From a player who was caddying for a friend at the start of the month (and now will be only playing).
“Honestly, I don’t even know. I can’t get anything out of my mouth,” she said. She began to cry.
“It feels amazing. There’s a lot of hard work behind it, and a lot of struggles that I went through the last six years, especially health-wise, and I’m just glad I was able to overcome everything and just keep my head in it. I knew I was capable. I just had a lot of obstacles thrown in my way, and I just – I’m glad I stuck with it. I almost quit playing last year, so thank God I didn’t.”
Popov never quit playing Sunday. Leading by just a couple of shots over Jasmine Suwannapura on the par-4 15, Popov drove it right, into Troon’s deep fescue. Nerves? Maybe. She muscled out her second shot to about 25 feet, then rolled in the putt for birdie. On the par-5 16th, she dropped a 10-footer for another birdie. She pumped her fist. She cracked a smile. Nerves? Nah.
“Yeah, you know, I was a lot calmer, honestly, than I thought I would be,” Popov said. “I was very nervous the first hole, but I said, ‘All right, just try to not let people see that. Try to be – if you’re calm to the outside, you’re going to be calm to the inside.’
“I figured, you know, if to the outside people, I look calm, then inside it will be like that, too. That’s what I try to do the whole round.”
A week after caddying, Popov was caddying and playing.
She had fallen one shot short of gaining LPGA status in qualifying last fall and had been playing Symetra Tour events when she was able to gain entry into the LPGA’s second event, the Marathon LPGA Classic in early August, only when the tournament could not fill its field due to the pandemic. She and Van Dam also shared her push cart, a TiCad pro handcrafted in Germany that costs about $2,400, according to Golfweek. Popov tied for ninth and earned a spot in the Open.
Popov played a Symetra event the next week, tied for second, flew overseas and played one practice round at Troon.
Four days and 277 shots later, she won her first LPGA title, a major. After 20 doctor visits a few years ago and losing around 25 pounds due to the Lyme disease. After entering eight LPGA events last year and missing seven cuts. After finishing no better than tied for 13th in her career. After nearly quitting.
“I think honestly, I guess it is an incredible story and I think just personally for me, I think that’s why I broke down on the 18th hole because it’s been something I couldn’t have dreamed of just a week ago, and it’s incredible that golf allows for these things to happen because, you know, I think the difference between two players any given week is never that big, but it might be 15 to 20 shots that week,” said Popov, whose boyfriend, Max Mehles, caddied for her. “But really, the ability of the player is not that far apart, and the hard work they put in is the same.
“I think it’s nice that every player, every week, gets an opportunity to win, and you know, I was one of however many players this week, I don’t know, the field of 144, and I’m one of 144 that has an opportunity and that has the skill level and that just happened to have pretty much I had the week of my life.”