Round Three: 67
On Saturday, Popov woke up to one of the biggest days of her life. She had gone to bed the night before just one shot off the lead at the halfway stage of a major championship.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous,” Popov said. “I definitely was a bit nervous (on the Saturday), but I was looking forward to it. At that point I started relishing the opportunity a little bit, and going out there with Emily (Kristine) Pedersen was fun.”
In the penultimate grouping in round three alongside Pedersen, Popov got off to a solid start.
“I just had to get through those first three holes and get into my round,” Popov said, “and I had three good birdie opportunities that I didn’t make, so I knew this was settling me and I’m right there.”
Three straight pars to start her day kept the German just one shot behind, but the par-5 fourth hole proved a turning point in the event. Popov produced a shot that will be vivid in many memories for years to come.
“I probably hit the best driver off the deck in my life. I pured it, it started exactly where I wanted it to start and rolled to 10 feet, and it was nice to reward myself with the eagle putt.
“That was a key moment for me on the weekend, to show everyone that I’m right there and I wasn’t going to go anywhere, hopefully!”
Popov converted her eagle chance to give her the outright lead. She did not relinquish that advantage for the rest of the championship.
However, while Popov continued to move forward, it was not all plain sailing. Great par putts on the ninth and 11th holes preceded a birdie putt on the 12th, which gave the German a three-shot swing in the right direction, and kept her confidence high.
“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,” she added.
A superb birdie on the 17th hole then pushed Popov to four under par for the championship, and a par on the last ensured she stayed bogey-free, signing for an eventual 67.
The world number 304 now had a three-shot lead going into Sunday, for what most certainly would be the biggest day of her golfing life.
Round Four: 68
Unsurprisingly, Popov woke up feeling nervous, and was desperate to get out on the course.
“All my movements were maybe a little bit faster," Popov said. "I just wanted to go to breakfast, kind of wanted to get it over with because I hardly could eat anything because I was so nervous. It’s hard to say, but there was a very comfortable dynamic that morning. My boyfriend and I both kind of knew this was a big day, but we’re not changing anything about our routine.”
Despite her nerves, Popov continued to take things one step at a time. However, she got off to a less than ideal start, after her ball trickled into a fairway bunker on the first hole.
“That bogey, actually, to me was not that bad of a thing. In my head it was a totally different picture," she said. "I gave myself a very good look for par, and hit a very good putt for par. It was a good bogey.”
Popov showed incredible resilience to recover from her early blip and bounced right back, hitting a stunning approach on the very next hole to set up a birdie.
“On the second hole, I picked the right club off the tee, and that second shot really settled me down. I knew my iron game was there.”
Further birdies would follow on the third and sixth holes, and Popov had suddenly opened up a sizeable lead at six under par.
The German played simply superb golf from tee to green, and rarely looked like missing a shot. When she did, she got up and down, and a great putt on the 11th hole kept her at six under with a two-shot lead.
A great birdie chance at the 13th passed her by, though, and with Jasmine Suwannapura closing in, Popov knew she needed to keep moving forward.
“My putt on 13 was very settling. I hit a great shot in, and a great putt, I just misread it, so I was doing fine mentally.”
A birdie on the 15th hole proved to be the key moment in the final round.
“On 15 I got a good break off the tee, and that was the moment I knew," she explained. "If it wasn’t my week, that drive would have gone into the bunker, and possibly close to the lip. So I knew this was my week, I got a lucky break.”
After her tee shot narrowly missed the fairway bunkers on the 15th hole, Popov found the green with a fine second shot before converting a mid-range birdie putt that felt hugely significant.
Popov then birdied the 16th hole to reach eight under par, and, despite a valiant effort from Suwannapura, the long-time leader stood on the 18th hole with a three-shot cushion, knowing a double bogey would be enough to win.
A great tee shot down the fairway, followed by a safe second shot up the left of the hole, meant Popov could putt around the greenside bunker, two-putt for a comfortable bogey and claim a stunning two-shot victory at the AIG Women’s Open.
“It was a feeling you can’t really describe,” Popov said of her winning moment. “It’s so rewarding at that moment, it’s a level of happiness you can’t really describe to people at that moment, it’s crazy.”