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From no status to full status, Sophia Popov shocks world with epic Women’s Open win

Sophia Popov did it.

She shocked the world.

She won the AIG Women’s Open Sunday in an epically improbable triumph, claiming the major championship title in its first staging at venerable Royal Troon, for her first tour title anywhere outside the three mini-tour events she won earlier this year.

“I guess it is an incredible story,” Popov said. “I think that’s why I broke down on the 18th hole, because it’s something I couldn’t have dreamed of just a week ago.”

Popov started this week No. 304 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings, a Symetra Tour player who didn’t even have LPGA status. She was caddying in an LPGA event just three weeks ago.

Nobody’s ever won a major with a lower ranking since the Rolex rankings were created in ’06.

The 27-year-old’s performance Sunday belied all of that in the way she refused to fold with Jasmine Suwannapura and Inbee Park applying pressure early. There were a flood of tears before Popov even tapped in at the last, closing out with a 3-under-par 68 to finish at 277, two strokes better than Suwannapura (67) and four better than Minjee Lee (69).

“It feels amazing,” Popov said. “There’s a lot of hard work behind it, and a lot of struggles that I went through the last six years. 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’m glad I stuck with it. I almost quit playing last year, so thank God I didn’t.”

The challenges Popov overcame went beyond what Royal Troon offered this week. During Sunday’s news conference after the trophy presentation, she revealed the nature of some debilitating health issues for the first time publicly.

A mysterious malady derailed Popov’s LPGA rookie season back in 2015. The former USC All-American said she lost about 25 pounds during that time, battling through stomach issues.

“Honestly, we didn’t even know what it was,” Popov said “It took a total of about 20 doctor visits, three years later, to figure out that I had Lyme disease.”

Popov said there were about 10 different symptoms complicating the diagnosis.

Full-field scores from the AIG Women’s Open

“It was just a tough time to go through, just because I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “It took so long to pinpoint exactly what was going on.

“It was just a struggle, and really, only my inner circle knew about that until now.”

Popov said she still deals with lingering effects, but she has them under control.

“It was a long road to get here because there was a lot of personal research, and figuring out on my own what would make me feel better,” she said. “I’m glad I got to the point where I’m feeling pretty good, and hopefully it stays that way.”

The year’s been a whirlwind for Popov, despite the LPGA and Symetra Tour shutdowns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Popov lost her conditional LPGA status last year, then failed to win it back by a single shot at Q-Series. She won three Cactus Tour events in the down time, a developmental circuit in Arizona, where she makes her home now. They were her first three professional wins anywhere. She unexpectedly got into the Marathon Classic two weeks ago with her Symetra Tour status, when the LPGA couldn’t fill its field amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. She tied for ninth there, her first top-10 finish in 32 career LPGA starts. It locked up one of the special-event qualifying spots to the AIG Women’s Open.

“The British Open to me was a bonus,” Popov said. “I got here on Tuesday, and I said, ‘You know, I know my game is in really good shape. I know anything’s possible.’ And I think I took that belief with me to every round, but I never expected this.”

With the victory, Popov earns a five-year LPGA exemption, effective beginning with the Cambia Portland Classic, Sept. 17-20. Curiously, that means she won’t be eligible for the year’s second major, the ANA Inspiration, Sept. 10-13.

There was special motivation in that alone.

“Honestly, that was like one of the biggest things that was on my mind the whole round, just, you know, just getting my card back and being back where I feel like I belong,” she said.

Popov is the first German to win a women’s major. Actually, Popov has dual citizenship. She was born in Massachusetts and moved to Germany as a child.

The $675,000 winner’s check is more than six times Popov’s career LPGA earnings. She said walking Royal Troon, trying to enjoy the picturesque views with her caddie/boyfriend, Maximilian Mehles, helped keep her mind off what was riding on Sunday’s finish. He’s also German, a University of Kentucky graduate, looking to get his pro career started when the pandemic abates.

“This is straight out of a movie,” Mehles said of the seaside views.

“It honestly looked a little bit like ‘Lord of the Rings,’ to me,” Popov said.

There was the feeling of enchantment in what the couple experienced Sunday.

You have to go way, way back to realize how improbable Popov’s victory was.

How far?

Surely past Hilary Lunke in the women’s game, past Lunke’s stunning win at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge in 2003. Lunke was, at least, an LPGA member when she won her major.

Maybe all the way back to Catherine Lacoste in the women’s game. She won the U.S. Women’s Open as an amateur in 1967. It was only her third start in a professional event.

Popov struggled afterward to soak in the magnitude of her triumph.

“Over the moon,” she said. “I honestly don’t even know how to describe it in words. I think no words will describe what I’m feeling. It’s a mix of just overexcitement and emotions, just all kinds of emotions, and I honestly can’t quite believe it yet.”