Round One: 70
Popov, ranked at number 304 in the world heading into the week, wasn’t even able to arrive on the property until Wednesday, as she was fulfilling her commitments on the LPGA development tour, the Symetra Tour, in America.
With just one practice round under her belt after going through Covid-19 testing and self-isolation, Popov turned up for her first round in incredibly brutal conditions.
“Honestly, when I was on the first tee box this morning” Popov said after her first round, “I said, ‘oh, my God, anything even remotely close to par today is going to be an incredible round. If I can keep it under five over par then this is going to be great!”
Popov did far better than the 76 she thought would adequately suffice in round one. Playing in possibly the toughest conditions all week on Thursday morning, Popov went out in a strong even par front nine, and was just one over for her day after 15 holes.
Back-to-back birdies then on the 16th and 17th holes, followed by a solid par on the 18th hole, added up to a stunning round of 70.
“I mean, just with the wind blowing in our faces on the first, I honestly didn't think I was going to come off the 18th green shooting one under par, so I'm extremely happy.”
“I wish I had secrets. I'm not sure what the secrets are except for honestly good shot-making today. Usually I'm pretty humble about my game, but today I honestly just made a lot of really good shots.”
“Especially on the front nine, it was really important with the wind into off the right. It was very tough, and I just picked good spots if I did miss the greens. Other than that, just hit a lot of greens in these conditions.”
“It was brutal, cold and a lot of wind, but I think sometimes that also obviously reduces your expectations, and I think that's what it did for me and how I was able to play well.”
“So it honestly ranks up as one of my best rounds ever to be honest because I shot nine under last week, which score-wise is obviously a better score, but I shot that in perfect conditions and absolute just regular target golf in Phoenix.”
Popov’s first round was one of just three scores under par, and put the 27-year-old into a share of second place, three shots behind early front-runner Amy Olson.
Round Two: 72
By the time Popov had teed off in round two, she held a share of the lead. For a player making her first AIG Women's Open appearance in nine years, and with an extremely tough day ahead, few would have been overly surprised to see Popov fall away.
Yet in fact, the German played what she perhaps considered to be her most important round of the week, despite it being her highest score by two shots.
“I think yesterday” Popov said on the Saturday of her second round, “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.”
Popov was two over par for her front nine, but as almost all other afternoon starters fell down the leaderboard, Popov hung on tight, parring every hole until the 17th. A birdie on the 18th turned what could have a been a very high score into a remarkable one over 72 on Friday.
“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 that was a key round for me to get through.”
By birdieing the final hole before the weekend, Popov played her way into the penultimate group for Moving Day, and stood just one shot off leader Dani Holmqvist heading into round three.
Visit AIGWomensOpen.com for part two detailing Popov's closing rounds, coming next week.