About nine months before she stunned the golf world by winning the Women’s Open, Sophia Popov made what could become the most significant bugbear of her career.
In the eighth and final round of the LPGA Qualifying Series, at Pinehurst No. 9, Popov made a 5 on the 18th hole par 4 which cost her her LPGA Tour card. The slip had dropped her from a tie for 41st (good enough to squeeze as one of the top 45 holding cards ) in a tie for the 46th (from the outside looking inside).
Popov, who won a national championship with USC and is one of four All-Americans in the program’s history, was disappointed. After four years in the big show, she was relegated to the Symetra Tour, the LPGA development series, for the 2020 season.
Fast forward to a gray and windy evening at the Royal Troon, home of the AIG Women’s Open 2020, where Popov has achieved what could become the most memorable bogey of his career.
Last Sunday, shortly after 5:30 pm local time, Popov finished 5 on the 18th hole par 4 to become a great champion. The 27-year-old, born in the United States but raised and still living in Germany, had become one of the game’s all-time Cinderella stories, joining Ben Curtis as the only golfer to win a major championship while ranked out. among the top 300 in the world.
With her three-time win at the Women’s Open, Popov had more than quintupled her career earnings and consolidated a lifetime exemption in the event. Popov also thought he had earned another invaluable bonus: the five-year LPGA exemption awarded to top winners.
But her thinking changed when she was contacted by an LPGA official shortly after the trophy was presented. The official informed Popov that she has fallen on the wrong side of a rarely used rule that states that only major winners who are current LPGA members are eligible for the five-year exemption.
As a member of the Symetra Tour at the time of his win, Popov would only get an exemption for the remainder of this season and the entire 2021 season. (In another cruel twist, Popov is not eligible for the second major. of the year, ANA Inspiration, because that event was originally scheduled for April.)
“I was definitely a little frustrated with the whole thing,” Popov told GOLF.com a couple of days after his win. “It’s tough because I feel like I deserve all five years of LPGA exemption, but at the same time I understand the rules and the fact that they can’t change the rules for a certain player.”
It doesn’t matter that he toured for four years or missed the Q-Series cut by one hit. And, in all honesty to the LPGA, he understands that rules are rules.
“The only reason I really feel this way is because I had played so many seasons on the LPGA tour before,” he said. “Felt like, really? Just because I finished a hit before getting my Q-Series status last year, will you take away four of the years I should have gotten? “
Popov said she and her manager have been in contact with LPGA officials. The Tour has told her they are in tune with her situation, but there is little room to make an exception.
“It’s a difficult situation because I know they’re on my side and they support me and they want it for me too, but they have to be honest with all the players and all the major winners, so I understand their point of view too,” she said.
When reached for comment from GOLF.com, the LPGA referred to the rules set out in its 2020 player priority list.
Popov has two choices: accept the rule or appeal. If he decides to dispute it, he could sue Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson in his defense. In the mid-2010s, LPGA officials granted unique entry exclusions to both players so they could circumvent the Tour’s age requirements.
Popov said he is still considering his options.
“I was definitely thinking about appealing to this and talking to the LPGA because, even if I could negotiate a couple of years longer than the fact, I feel like I deserve it,” he said. “But the rules are the rules, and I have a great relationship with everyone at the LPGA and they are always doing their best with all the information they have at hand.”
Though the outcome doesn’t change, Popov says she isn’t worried. He knows he is in full control of his own destiny.
“I have the confidence in myself and my ability to extend my status and my ability,” Popov said. “However, I don’t like looking that far. Everything happens as it should happen. If you keep your status, great. If you don’t, you don’t. I am really excited for the next year and a half. “
She should be too.
It’s not hard to imagine that Popov’s winning week in Troon altered his career trajectory. A highly publicized junior and college player whose professional career has been derailed by injuries and inconsistencies, Popov is now a big winner who knows she has the game and determined to beat the best players in the world in the bigger stages of the game.
“It was just an emotional roller coaster, even if you couldn’t see it from the outside,” Popov said of his win in Scotland. “I was thinking about everything that has happened in the last five or six years and how much life can change in a week.”
In fact, Popov’s life – or at least his confidence – began to change in March, when the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic led to a sudden offseason.
“The pandemic hit and I was in a not-so-great mental space because I knew I would have to play Symetra Tour for another year after this season before I could get my LPGA Tour status back,” he said. “When I talked to my mom I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again.'”
After some input from his inner circle, Popov decided to double down. He participated in a number of events on the Cactus Tour, which attracted a slew of competitive golf-hungry Arizona pros during their layoff.
A few weeks later, on April 15, he achieved his first victory. The winner’s check was only worth $ 2,500, but it represented something much bigger.
“It was kind of like I got over this barrier, this mental hurdle I had of winning tournaments – I hadn’t won since college,” he said. “Mentally, I started to be in a better place, and then the game of golf came together.”
Popov would win three more on the Cactus Tour, racking up not quite $ 9,000 in earnings – a pittance next to the $ 675,000 earned at the Women’s Open.
But the experience was invaluable. When she arrived at the Women’s Open, Popov said she leaned on her success on the Cactus Tour to close the win.
A victory that changes everything. Now and forever.
“I talked to a friend earlier and said, ‘If I decide to retire today, for the rest of my life I can always call myself a women’s Open champion,'” said Popov. “It’s crazy because no one will take it away from me.”
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