The IX: Golf Thursday with Carly Grenfell, August 27, 2020
The best story of 2020 — Interview with Sophia Popov — Must-click links in women's golf
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The Best Story of 2020
This year has taken all of us on a rollercoaster of emotions. From COVID-19 and event cancellations, to social unrest and protests happening all over the country. It has been a year we will never forget.
And this entire time I have thought: thank goodness we have golf to distract us or give us a break from reality each weekend.
What unfolded at the AIG Women’s British Open last weekend was no different. It was very easy to get lost in the action. I still get goosebumps reading some of the headlines that came out of Sophia Popov’s improbable road to becoming a Major Champion.
There really is nothing else to talk about today other than Sophia Popov.
Let’s start from the beginning of Popov’s story. In 2015, she finished T11 at Q-school to earn some status on the LPGA. She ended up playing in mostly Symetra Tour events the following year and made the cut in 17 of 19 events, with five top-10 finishes.
It was much of the same story in 2017: had to go back to Q-school, and played in all Symetra Tour events that year too. In 2018, she played in 12 LPGA events and made the cut in half of those events. In 2019, she only made one cut.
Coming into the AIG Women’s British Open last weekend, Popov’s world ranking was No. 304. Her total career earnings dating back to 2015 were $108,051. She had no wins on the Symetra Tour, let alone the LPGA Tour. In fact, as I outlined above, she could hardly compete in regular season tour events because of where was was on the priority list, and because she was having to go back to qualifying series each year.
Fast forward to today and now she has an asterisk by her major championship win: won as a non-member. Let that sink in for a minute. Because Popov finished in the Top 10 at the Marathon Classic the week prior, she earned a spot in the British Open. She didn’t even know she would be playing at Troon until the week before, so it’s not like there was any special preparation done ahead of time. She was just along for the ride and likely wasn’t going in with any expectations.
That could have been her secret right there; not having expectations. It wasn’t a wire to wire victory, but it definitely felt like she had been in winning position before. Her composure was beyond impressive, and her reaction to winning it all, and hoisting a major championship trophy, were even better. You want to talk about a life-changing few days? This is it. Winning any event on tour is life-changing. But adding major champion to your resume is even more life-changing.
Not only did she leap up to No. 24 in the world rankings, or add another $675,000 to her career earnings, but she’s also locked in her LPGA status for the next few years and the remainder of 2020. That means no financial stress. That means no added pressure to perform well. That means more visibility and coverage, which will open up more sponsorship opportunities for her. That means an accomplishment that will be forever etched into her story: major champion. That is no easy feat, and Popov did something nobody ever has before, and something nobody expected to ever happen in the first place.
Popov told media following her win that she almost quit playing golf a year ago. It is an absolute grind on the Symetra Tour, and when you aren’t having a lot of success on the LPGA, it’s even tougher. These women fighting their butts off on Symetra aren’t making any money if you factor in food, flights and accommodation costs, especially if you aren’t finishing near the top. Popov also battled health issues, which after three years and 20 doctors later, they found out was Lyme Disease. It hasn’t been an easy journey. Probably a frustrating one more than anything. But wow, her perseverance without a doubt paid off.
Popov’s win had the golf world in awe on Sunday afternoon. It was so refreshing to see nearly every golf publication and golf media talking about it. And it was really cool to see players like Justin Rose, Tommy Fleetwood, Tony Finau and Gary Player voice their support for the event and the LPGA. I’m telling you: Justin Rose started something. As I’ve talked about plenty of times, his platform is important because other guys in his shoes will notice. And when they notice, they will start talking too.
While golf media was all over the coverage and Popov’s unlikely feat, it was pretty disappointing that other mainstream sports outlets like espnW, Bleacher Report, Sports Illustrated and SB Nation weren’t talking about it. I’ll say it again: this will be the best story to come out of 2020. Why wouldn’t you want to tell it?
In looking at espnW’s social media specifically, it’s pretty much flooded with WNBA coverage, which makes perfect sense. But sometimes it feels like we forget that LPGA Players are professional athletes too. I have heard the bandwidth argument plenty— there isn’t enough time or resources to dedicate to golf. But I’m not asking for shot-by-shot coverage or even covering every event every weekend. I’m asking to simply cover a major championship with a major storyline. How does that get lost in the shuffle or worse than that, not even seen? It really beats me.
To golf media and their publications: thank you. Thank you for blowing up this story in a way that it deserved! Thank you for talking about, tweeting about it and writing about it. A non-LPGA member ranked 304th in the world did the unthinkable and won a major championship when she was caddying on the LPGA two weeks before. Are you serious? You couldn’t script a better story than that!
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This Week in Women’s Golf
Reminder: First, the underlined words are the links. Second. CLICK these, even if you’ve already read them. Clicks = Attention from editors, producers and webmasters. Third, if you want to push out stuff you’ve written or read, email me! email@example.com
Popov opens up about her battle with lyme disease. (via LPGA.com)
The Walmart NW Arkansas Championship tees it up on Friday. Check out the TV times and leaderboard. (via LPGA.com)
Slow start notwithstanding, Inbee Park pleased with Top-5 finish at the British Open. (via Korea Times)
The Canadian Women’s Open in 2022 will be played in Ottawa. (via Yahoo Sports)
USGA, LPGA announce 2021 Senior Major Championship schedule. (via LPGA.com)
$2 million grant to promote the 2021 Solheim Cup has been restored. (via Toledo Blade)
LPGA players juggling golf with motherhood. (via 4029 ABC News)
Push cart and all, Lindsey Weaver felt support at the British Open from afar. (via LPGA.com)
Pia Nilsson, Lynn Marriott shattering barriers in the coaching game. (via Golf Channel)
From caddie in Toledo to major champion: Popov’s storybook finish. (via Toledo Blade)
It’s a homecoming for Maria Fassi this week at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. (via LPGA.com)
Another LPGA tournament canceled, this time the Kia Classic in September. (via Golf Digest)
Minjee Lee is driving for major championship glory in 2020. (via Inside Golf)
Renee Powell receives 2020 Ellen Griffin Rolex Award. (via LPGA.com)
Look out, push carts are taking over. (via Golf.com)
With her major win, Popov made the biggest move in the history of the Rolex World Rankings. (via LPGA.com)
Did golf just crown the most improbable major champion ever? (via Golf.com)
After raising three children, Cindy Miller received her big break through the senior tour. (via Observer)
Tweet of the Week
Five at The IX: Sophia Popov
Let’s hear from the AIG Women’s British Open Champion herself. I find it hard to believe any story to come out of 2020 will be better than Popov’s. No Laying Up brought her on their podcast—here are some of the best soundbites from that interview.
I. How has your life changed since Sunday? It’s been a crazy 48 hours. I had no idea what winning a tournament would entail as far as media goes. It took about 3.5 hours until I could make phone calls to my parents. They got really mad about that and said ‘finally!’ As soon as I landed back in Germany, where I am now, it was crazy the requests that came in. Between my agency and I, sometimes I’m so confused and worried I missed something. I’m almost more nervous to miss something than I was walking down the stretch on Sunday. It is a different kind of scenario for me to be in.
II. Have you watched any of the coverage back? I have not watched the coverage, I’ve just seen a bunch of highlights when they showed my shots during my interview. I haven’t seen the full coverage. I really want to sit down and watch that I’m just not sure how. It will take a call to Sky Sports to have them send me the coverage. I saw most of the shots down the stretch; just a compilation of them instead of the actual coverage. Hopefully I get to soon.
III. What are some of the things you’ve had to overcome since turning pro? Sometimes the way the story has formulated in the media makes it sound like I came out of nowhere. But I like to believe that my ability to play really good golf has been around…I got through Q-school in 2014 and thought [the success from my amateur career] would just continue. I was extremely excited. Then my first event in Australia I started getting weird fatigue, I couldn’t get out of bed, I blamed it on jet lag but I knew something was not quite right. I would sleep for days at a time, which was unlike me…it took three years to finally get my diagnosis for Lyme Disease. I had three surgeries, a bunch of doctor visits, and nobody being able to tell me what was going on. You can’t really fully grasp it; nobody can tell you what they are going to do and it will go away. The last 2.5 years have been personal research, diet and exercise. Just putting everything together to be that player that I was in college again. It’s so much harder than what you see on the outside…I almost had to work twice as hard to get my body to the point to practice like I could before…That was the hardest thing for me to battle, I couldn’t quite get my full status and had to battle for every event every year.
IV. What was going through your head when you thought you were going to quit playing golf? I had a bunch of people say that everyone peaks at a different time and that 27 years old isn’t old. All these rookies are 19, 20, 21 and you say you’re 27, and it makes you feel older. Now having won, I look back and go, 27 is exactly how it is supposed to be. I just wasn’t ready when I was younger. I had all these battles but mentally, there was so much more for me to learn in those six years since I graduated. I needed the time. That’s the way I like to think of it rather than I won later in my career…I get that it sounds kind of brutal to say I was going to quit the game but it was a very natural thing at that time. A lot of girls probably would have said we know you can do well out here and it’s too early to quit. And others would have said there are phases you have to go through…We all go through those periods of thinking you can stop at anytime. It was a very real thought that I had.
V. Have you gone through anything in your career that compared to winning a major pressure and nerve wise? One other event would have been two years ago at the Meijer LPGA Classic. I was actually in contention after three days and in the second to last group on Sunday. I played some really good golf and doubled 18 to drop out of the top ten. That was the most pressure I’ve had on the big tour. It’s tough to say. The pressure doesn’t change as much at each level; the nerves are the same. That tournament that you’re playing is the most important thing to you. I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t the most pressure packed four hours of my life…Internally, things were just absolute craziness. But at the same time, it was a weird feeling of calmness in me. I played golf to be in this exact situation. We play this game to be in contention every week; we thrive on that…I just tried to enjoy it and treat it like every other golf round.