In a fairytale story, Sophia Popov, who was neither exempt for the AIG Women’s Open nor the LPGA Tour just two weeks ago, takes a three-shot lead into Sunday at Royal Troon.
Popov played flawless golf on Saturday, carding two birdies and an eagle for a 67 in the only bogey-free round of the week so far.
The 27-year-old German, who has been fighting for her LPGA status over the past few years and is ranked as the world number 304, finds herself in uncharted territory at a major championship.
“As far as seeing myself in this spot a week or two ago, definitely not,” Popov said. “Although, my golf game I knew was in a good spot. I was joking about it last week. I said, ‘well, you never know, maybe I can get myself in contention next week’.
“Even though I was joking about it, I knew I'm capable of it. I think the expectation in my head has always been there. It's just whether I can make it happen, so it's really nice to see that I can.”
Popov qualified for the AIG Women's Open through the Marathon Classic a fortnight ago, where she was also a last-minute entry. Her T9 finish was enough for her to make it to Royal Troon this week, and is the only top-10 finish of her LPGA Tour career to date.
You would never know of Popov’s struggles watching her play this week, however. The German has played with incredible poise, resiliency and skill in her first Women’s Open appearance in nine years.
An excellent round of 70 on Thursday was followed by an equally good 72 in brutal conditions on Friday evening.
“I think yesterday,” Popov said, “was probably the more important round for me because now I've got a little bit of expectation going into the next round. I played really solid.
“One over par doesn't sound great to the people at home, but it honestly felt like a four or five under par round anywhere else, just because the conditions were really brutal.
“So I think yesterday was a key round for me to get through and then obviously now, it's just me versus pressure, and shot-making in the right moments.”
Popov was the only player from her side of the draw in contention at the start of round three, and she put together a solid start before catching fire with one of the shots of the week on the par-5 fourth hole.
A driver off the deck to eight feet, followed by a confident putt, gave Popov the outright lead at -2. It was an advantage she would not relinquish for the rest of the day.
Superb putting from Popov would help her save par at nine, 10 and 11, and she birdied the 12th hole after a solid putt followed a great pin-high approach.
“I think those were huge,” Popov said of her putts. “On nine, 10 and 11, really, I had par putts, kind of longer par putts, the longest one being on 11, and I think those three putts kept my momentum up, and allowed for me to make that putt on 12 for birdie because I was just kind of riding that wave of good putts going in.
“Honestly, I was surprised how calm I stayed over those because I knew these are the key putts that I have to make during the round, and so I'm definitely very proud of those.”
Popov added one more superb putt on 17, a raking 30-footer, to cap off her incredible day. A par on the last secured a 67 for the German, which tied the best round of the week.
As for Sunday, Popov expects there to be nerves, but she is ready to take on the biggest opportunity of her career.
“There are going to be a lot of nerves there, and I would be lying if it wasn't that way. I'd also be very said if it wasn't that way. That's why we play the sport. We do this in order to be in a position like I'm going to be in tomorrow," she explained.
"It’s a position I've never been in, so we are just going to have to see how it goes and take it one shot at a time and just try to do my thing!”