How winning a major championship changed this pro’s mindset

sophia popov hits from bunker

Sophia Popov sits T5 after a steady opening round at the U.S. Women's Open.

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HOUSTON — Sophia Popov knows she can win again — it’s funny what winning a major championship can do for your psyche.

Just four months ago, Popov was caddying in LPGA Tour events and playing on the Symetra Tour. Then one magical week at Royal Troon changed her life as she became the Women’s Open champion and the best story in golf this year. She’s still riding that high.

“I’m trying not to come down off of it — I quite like it,” Popov said.

Popov oozes confidence these days. You can tell by the way she walks, and talks, and hits the ball. Gone are the days of her wondering if she belongs among the game’s best. Now she knows she belongs.

She plays like it, too.

Popov opened the U.S. Women’s Open with a steady two-under 69 in Round 1. She made four birdies and two bogeys. More importantly, she avoided the big numbers that can sink anyone’s chances of winning on the biggest stage.

“Obviously pretty consistent. I hit a lot of good shots today,” Popov said. ” I scrambled really well. I could have avoided a couple mistakes, but I think overall it was just very solid, and I was making the putts that I had to.”

That’s the sign of a champion — getting it done when it matters most. Sure, it’s only Thursday. But many championships have been lost on Thursdays. Those clutch saves on a Thursday can be the difference come Sunday.

Popov used to show up to college tournaments knowing she could win. If she played to her ability, she knew she had the stuff to lift the trophy. Once she turned pro, that feeling got lost. Missed cuts and low status can do funny things to your head. But now, the feeling is back.

“It’s definitely a similar feeling,” she said. “Even though you’re teeing it up with the best players in the world, so you have to sometimes accept that there are girls going to be out there shooting low numbers on days that are not easy. But the feeling that I have is very similar to that college feeling that I used to have.”

So, what changed? Well, winning a major, for one. But her entire mindset has shifted from her early days as a pro. Popov admitted that she used to go out and feel like she was protecting. Trying to avoid mistakes and keep bogeys off the card. Now, she’s trying to make birdies and take it deep — the timidness is gone.

Her perspective has changed, too. As any good young pro, Popov is curious, and she soaks in the advice of those who’ve come before her. Humility is an important trait in a great champion.

“I’ve talked to players that have had a lot more success than I have, and they say, ‘You can’t place too much importance on every single shot,’” Popov said. “’Find your ball, hit it and move on.’ I think that was great advice.”

When you’re playing well, this game can feel simple. Popov is certainly making it look simple these days.

Golf.com Editor

Zephyr Melton is an assistant editor for GOLF.com where he spends his days blogging, producing and editing. Prior to joining the team at GOLF.com, he attended the University of Texas followed by stops with Team USA, the Green Bay Packers and the PGA Tour. He assists on all things instruction and is the staff’s self-appointed development tour “expert.”