On the 18th hole at the AIG Women's Open, champagne and tears flowed as Sophia Popov tapped in for victory.
Popov turned to Minjee Lee, with whom she played in the final pairing, and in true COVID-19 fashion smiled precariously and asked through laughter and tears, “Do we, like, hug?”
Three weeks ago, Sophia Popov’s friend, LPGA veteran Anne van Dam, asked the Symetra Tour player to fill in as a caddy at the LPGA’s season restart event, the Drive On Championship in Toledo, Ohio.
Today, with a win at the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon, Popov is a major champion.
Popov, No. 304 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings and a USC graduate, shocked the golf world in a life-changing moment on Sunday, claiming her first win on the LPGA Tour with a weekend 67-68.
It was all sinking in, literally, as Popov tapped in her winning putt in a hard-fought, emotional moment, to secure a final 277 for the tournament. Popov finished two strokes ahead of Jasmine Suwannapura, who made a charge with four straight birdies on the front nine Sunday but couldn’t break through to catch Popov.
Seven-time major champion Inbee Park was also in pursuit, with a final round 66 and a fourth-place finish.
Popov entered the final round with a three-shot lead and continued to dominate the competition even after an opening bogey. She answered that bogey with two straight birdies on holes two and three and major fist pumps were on display with back-to-back birdies on 15 and 16.
Popov fought off plenty of experienced veterans and what was probably a bundle of nerves to hold on to the lead and claim victory.
Her victory, only the second major championship win by a player outside the top 300, according to golf.com, earns her LPGA Tour status for the next two years, a major championship and a $675,000 check. Her previous combined earnings as a professional golfer come in at around $108,000.
A standout on the USC women’s golf team, the four-time Trojan All-American helped lead the team to the 2013 NCAA Championship, where she tied for sixth individually.
Popov closed out her senior year at USC as the career leader in rounds in the 60s. She also had four top-10 finishes, six top-13 finishes and 14 rounds of par or better.
Her 72.71 career stroke average is second best at USC for a four-year player, and her five wins tied for most in program history.
Jennifer Song and Lizette Salas, Popov’s former USC teammates, also finished strong in their weekend appearances at Royal Troon.
Song finished tied for seventh, and Salas finished tied for 19th.
While the road to greatness in golf for any player can be riddled with obstacles, Popov faced some particularly gritty challenges.
"There's a lot of hard work behind this, a lot of struggles I went through, especially health-wise," Popov revealed in her post-round interview.
Due to her struggles with Lyme disease, Popov said the past six years have been extremely challenging.
“I knew I was capable. I just had a lot of obstacles thrown in my way, and I’m glad I stuck with it,” she said. “I almost quit playing last year, so thank God I didn’t.”
Popov lost her LPGA tour status last year and qualified for the AIG Women’s Open by chance with a top-10 finish at the Marathon Classic. She only played in that event because higher-ranked players could not fill out the tournament field due to COVID-19.
“It is an incredible story personally for me,” Popov said. “That’s why I think I broke down on the 18th hole, because it has been something I couldn’t have dreamed of just a week ago.”
Golf can be a funny game in that way, and that is not lost on Popov.
“It’s incredible that golf allows for these things to happen,” she said. “I pretty much had the week of my life.”