Skip to main content

Why Sophia Popov picked Golf over Tennis


A choice between two sports

Sophia Popov in round four of the AIG Women

Sophia Popov enjoyed a stunning major breakthrough at last month's AIG Women's Open. However, had she been taller as a child, it is quite possible she may have contended for glory in a different sport.

Popov was ranked 304 in the world and had never won on a main tour when she produced a phenomenal performance at Royal Troon to triumph by two shots with a seven-under aggregate.

The victory not only represented the undoubted highlight of the 27-year-old's career to date, but also provided total justification of her decision to choose golf over tennis at the age of 14 when she was performing strongly in both sports.

Popov, whose birthplace of Framingham, Massachusetts is a three-hour drive from tennis' US Open venue of Flushing Meadows in New York, participated in a wide range of sports after moving to Germany as a young child with her mother, father and two elder brothers.

Yet golf and tennis soon emerged as the strongest suits for a youngster from a strong athletic background.

"My mum was a swimmer, so she was an athlete. She swam in college and was part of the US national team," Popov said. "My dad was a pretty avid field hockey player back in Germany and they were both skiers, very athletic genes, I guess, and so they were all about introducing us to all of the sports.

"My mum said: 'I want to show you guys as many sports as possible. I don't want to decide anything for you. You should just do everything, see what you're good at. I want to give you the opportunity.' Obviously I was very thankful for that because she took us everywhere when we were little, her three kids. Honestly, looking back, I have no idea how she did it. It felt like Superwoman.

"So I had the opportunity to just do everything when I was little and then my dad was a huge golf fan ... so when it was his turn to take care of us and my mum had something going on, immediately he took us to the golf course. We took to it, my oldest brother and I especially. I loved just hitting a ball. I always had an affinity for ball sports where there's something between me and the ball, whether it's tennis or ice hockey or golf."

As Popov played golf and tennis more frequently growing up, it soon became clear she had plentiful talent both on the course and the court.

"Those two sports were the ones that I did for the longest time throughout my childhood," she said. "And then when I was 14 years old I decided between tennis and golf because all the tournaments started being on the same weekends and my mum said 'I can't be in two different locations at the same time, it's just impossible'. She said, 'you've got to decide' and I decided for golf, and I just kind of went from there."

Popov acknowledges she could easily have chosen tennis over golf had she not faced a significant height disadvantage as a teenager.

"I felt I was playing really well in tennis, but the competition was so intense in Germany. And I was kind of short when I was little, I was never on the tall side, so when I got to 12, 13, 14, these girls would be growing way taller than I was and I'd have to be very strategic on the tennis court.

"It was very exhausting. I went through a lot of three-setters just trying to beat these monstrous girls, and I thought this is going to be really tough. Do I really want to? I feel like I'm going to have to to work twice as hard as anyone else if I really want to do this.

"At the same time I talked to my golf coach, I think I had just turned 14, and he said: 'I think personally that you have a big career ahead of you in golf. It's up to you what you decide for but I think golf would be a thing that you could potentially, down the road, be very good at, and professionally too if you would want to do that.'

"And I really wanted to go to college and it felt like golf was probably my way in, as far as getting a scholarship and playing college golf. So I think I was around 14 when I decided and figured I have more of a future in golf."

Sophia Popov poses with the AIG Women's Open trophy

The decision proved a wise one. Within a few years, Popov enjoyed success at the European Ladies Amateur Championship - an event that counts the likes of Maria Hjorth, Caroline Hedwall, Carlota Ciganda, Celine Boutier, Emily Kristine Pedersen and Bronte Law among its champions.

That victory earned Popov a maiden appearance in the AIG Women's Open, at Carnoustie in 2011. Ten years on, she will return to the same venue next year as the defending champion.