Perhaps it says everything about the bizarre nature of behind-closed-doors major golf that Sophia Popov is in the pole position to complete the great Troon double here on Sunday – the AIG Women’s Open and the Cactus Tour Pinnacle.
Popov earned $2,300 for victory in the May event at Troon North, Scottsdale. The German will collect $675,000 if she can turn her three-shot advantage into her first major title here at this rather more famous venue this evening.
From the Arizona desert to the Ayrshire links – a journey less well travelled.
Of course, it is easy to see Popov at the top of this leaderboard, discover that the 27-year-old is ranked 304th in the world, without a win on a leading tour so far in her six-year career and with a best major performance of a tie for 57th and anticipate a huge shock. Yet, in the build-up, Popov was mentioned by the tipsters as a dark-horse, as her apparently skinny odds of 100-1 showed.
The reason why is simple. Popov burned up the US mini tours during the lockdown – with three wins, four seconds and three other top sixes – and following a ninth and a tie for second on the main US Tours when the “official” circuits resumed, she arrived in Scotland convinced that she could at least contend to give Germany its first female major champion and its third after Martin Kaymer and Bernhard Langer.
“I live in Arizona and I played eight or nine Cactus Tour events, and won three of them,” Popov explained. “Yeah, it’s a mini-Tour, but with no other events to play in it was way more competitive than usual and they are three-day events and I did gain a lot of confidence from that period. I knew that my game was there. I just had to get it together in my head.”
This remarkable third round emphatically fully justified Popov’s self-belief. There have been 362 rounds completed on this windswept layout this week and only Popov’s 67 – the joint-lowest of the week – has been blemish free. Granted, the conditions were the tamest of the championship, but there was still a brisk south-westerly that began to switch and swirl and no bogeys is a fine achievement.
The highlight of her four-under magnificence came on the par-five fourth when she hit a driver off the deck to within 10 feet for an eagle. Otherwise it was an exhibition of solid golf that would have graced any seaside specialist. Born in America, but raised in Baden, Popov has long fostered a love of the links.
“I grew up playing all the British Girls’ and British Ams and those were my favourite tournaments,’ said the former Ladies European Amateur champion. “My last one was this event at Carnoustie, which I counted as one of the high points in my career, so I was so excited to come here.
But now comes the most testing bit; sleeping on the cushion and trying to maintain the same comfort levels. Shots can disappear like confetti in the wind and Popov knows she faces the mental challenge of her life.
“I would be lying if it wasn’t going to be,” she said. “But that’s why we play this sport. We do this in order to be in a position like this. It’s a position I’ve never been in, so I’m just going to have to see how it goes and take it one shot at a time and just try to do my thing. You know, I missed retaining my LPGA Tour status by a shot at Q-School last year. But this is my life and I think this is how things are supposed to go.”
There are only two other players under par – the Australian Minjee Lee and Thai Jasmine Suwannapura on one-under. Lee is the obvious danger. The world No 8 was ominously composed in her 69 and at 24, this five-time US Tour winner might be ready for her graduation to major champion. Two further back in a tie for fourth is another German in Caroline Musson – the Solheim Cup player who came third in the Open at Kingsbarns – and two Americans in Austin Ernst and Lindsey Weaver.
The latter has turned heads by not employing a caddie this week and instead pulling her own trolley. Not only does it save money – the reason why the LPGA Tour has allowed their competitors to go solo is they wish – but it has also helped in her “back to basics” approach.
If anyone is to emerge from the group on two-over then maybe it will be former world No 1 Lydia Ko. The New Zealander had to scrap for her 72 and seems to have recovered the competitive zest that established her as such a phenomenon as a teenaged multiple major-winner.
Alas, the home challenge has fizzled out to barely an ember. Mel Reid is the best-placed in a tie for 26th on six-over, following a notable 68. Reid, 32, was convinced she had missed the cut on Friday night and was about to drive home to Derby. But she knew if she left the “bubble” she would not be able to turnaround if she did scrape in. Reid was wise to be hesitant.