Ed. note: GOLF senior writer Alan Shipnuck is counting down the six most impactful and enduring stories from a golf year that was at once weird and wonderful, unnerving and uplifting.
In the wake of Sophia Popov’s stunning victory at the Women’s British Open, Cinderella’s name was commonly invoked, but that comparison hardly does justice to Popov. After all, the fictional heroine just had to mop a few floors and put up with a grouchy stepmom, which is a breeze next to the brutal realities Popov, 28, has had to overcome.
Three years ago, this already slender athlete lost 25 pounds due to Lyme disease. Popov so struggled with her game and health that in 2019 she made only one cut on the LPGA and began contemplating another line of work. In fact, in the first half of 2020 she performed a couple of cameos as a caddie for her Dutch friend, Anne van Dam. Popov qualified for the Open only by finishing in the top 10 at Marathon LPGA Classic two weeks earlier. She didn’t actually know about the exemption until van Dam FaceTimed her with the news.
All of this was the backdrop to a win that was cinematic in its sweetness.
Popov arrived at Royal Troon as the 304th-ranked player in the world, though that lowly number doesn’t entirely tell the story. The native of Weingarten, Germany, comes from athletic stock: Her mother, Claudia, was a top swimmer at Stanford while her father, Philip, was a standout field hockey player; brother Nicholas swam at Arizona. Sophia enjoyed a decorated amateur career and won five tournaments while at USC, tying the school record and leading the Trojans to the NCAA championship in 2013.
Yet all the struggles that followed during her pro career had left Popov’s confidence battered.
“The game can beat you up sometimes,” she said earlier this year. The revelation at Royal Troon was not just her fine play but also the poise and polish she displayed, especially after sleeping on a three-shot lead Saturday night, when she was one of only three players under par. Popov played her heart out during the final round, shooting a 68 that earned her a life-changing $675,000. (Her only big splurge in the aftermath was a Trackman, which she had long lusted after.)
Popov jumped 280 places in the World Ranking, but the feel-good story of the year quickly took an unexpected turn. Before Troon, Popov had lost her playing LPGA status and was thus considered a non-member. Therefore, her victory did not come with the standard five-year exemption to the tour. Popov was also excluded from the field of the year’s second major, the ANA Inspiration, as the field was frozen in the spring due to the pandemic-induced schedule change.
That the game’s newest sensation was excluded from such an important event because of an unfortunate technicality led to widespread umbrage. It wasn’t the last important tournament Popov would miss but she has handled the entire situation with an admirable grace and perspective. Near the end of the season Popov was asked if she had yet come to terms with the magnitude of her Open victory.
“You know,” she said, “I feel like it’s never going to quite sink in.”