A jubilant Sophia Popov reflected on the best performance of her life after her remarkable victory in the AIG Women’s Open.
Popov, the world number 304, claimed the first main-tour victory of her career in stunning fashion at Royal Troon, retaining the lead throughout the final day as she finished with a 68 for a seven-under par total.
Given what was at stake for the 27-year-old, she could have been forgiven for feeling the pressure on Sunday, especially when she bogeyed the opening hole after teeing off with a three-shot lead.
However, Popov responded with three birdies in the next four holes and held her nerve magnificently thereafter to triumph with a degree of comfort.
The champion shed tears after sinking her winning putt as she came to terms with a life-changing success.
“I guess it is an incredible story and I think that's why I broke down on the 18th hole, because it's been something I couldn't have dreamed of just a week ago, and it's incredible that golf allows for these things to happen,” said Popov.
“I think the difference between two players any given week is never that big, but it might be 15 to 20 shots. But really, the ability of the players is not that far apart, and the hard work they put in is the same.
“I think it’s nice that every player, every week, gets an opportunity to win. I'm one of 144 that had an opportunity and that has the skill level and I pretty much had the week of my life.
“In the conditions, it was probably the best golf I've ever played. So I'm just incredibly thankful for the sport and anyone involved in giving us an opportunity to play every week.”
Prior to her understandably tearful celebrations, Popov was a picture of calmness as she held off Jasmine Suwannapura and Minjee Lee to earn the $675,000 winner’s prize.
“I was a lot calmer, honestly, than I thought I would be,” she added. “I was very nervous the first hole, but I said, all right, just try to not let people see that. If you're calm to the outside you're going to be calm to the inside.”
Popov’s composure owed much to the influence of her boyfriend and caddie, Maximilian Mehles, who provided welcome distractions to ease the tension.
“You know, a lot of times he would just refer to some sailboat that's out on the ocean,” said Popov. “He was like: ‘Did you see that sail?’
“And I'm like: ‘Are you talking about the spinnaker on that boat?’ He would just basically talk about something, like the birds. I was like, how is he even looking at these birds right now? I'm so nervous; I'm thinking about my next shot!
“But it was great, though, because he would say things that would just make me laugh or he would find or talk about something completely different.”
After birdieing the 15th and 16th to give herself a healthy cushion, Popov knew the job was virtually done when she hit the green at 17.
“After I hit that tee shot on 17, and I hit the green, I think the tension started going. I took a deep breath and I was like, that's the one,” she explained.
“That's the shot I needed because going into 18 with a three-shot lead, I believe, made it that much more comfortable. So after that tee shot on 17, I knew this is probably my week.”
Popov has enjoyed a remarkable rise in a short space of time. After caddying for close friend Anne van Dam three weeks ago, she recorded only her first top-10 finish on the LPGA Tour at the following week’s Marathon Classic, a result that earned her a place at Royal Troon.
What's more, she revealed in her post-championship press conference that she'd had to overcome significant health issues to become a major winner.
“It's honestly something I haven't really talked about a lot before, but my rookie year, I started having a lot of health issues, and honestly we didn't even know what it was,” said Popov. “It took a total of about 20 doctor visits three years later to figure out that I had Lyme disease.
“At that point it was so chronic, though, that I had just been struggling a lot with fatigue, and honestly, I had like 10 different symptoms. It was a tough time to go through just because I didn't know what it was, and it took so long to pinpoint exactly what was going on.
“For me to regain all my energy - I lost like 25 pounds and had to regain all of that - and get back to where I was before, and it was just a struggle, and really, only my inner circle knew about that until now.
“Lyme is obviously something that sticks with you, to be honest. But I'm very disciplined as far as my health and my nutrition goes, and working out and doing everything in my power to have as little as possible symptoms.
“But 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, and I'm glad I got to the point where I'm feeling pretty good, and hopefully it stays that way.”