Today's Golfer columnist and LET star Meghan MacLaren explains why Sophia Popov's AIG Women's Open win at Royal Troon answered her own demons and gave hope to golfers everywhere.
This year’s Women’s Open was the classic rags-to-riches Cinderella story. The kind that brings a tear to the eye of even the most hardened, storied golf journalist.
It was probably my most liked tweet of the year and I didn’t even have to give any context whatsoever – “Like if you’re crying” showed that it wasn’t just me who was feeling it. And that was it; you could feel it. Every emotion in the quiet stance of a golfer waiting to finish her round.
The joy and the relief and the shock and the vindication, wound into four rounds of a Major Championship and six years of a professional career that had refused to give, all coiled up in the assurance of a six-inch putt to claim one of the most prestigious titles in golf.
We all felt it. Stood on the edge of the 18th green at Royal Troon, one of the most underrated championship courses in the world, finally home to a women’s professional event and a giant piece of women’s professional history. Because it wasn’t just a Major win – if there is such a thing – and it wasn’t ‘just’ a first professional title for Sophia Popov. It was proof of her journey and of the potential journey for so many others.
The statistics of World Rankings and no status only give definition to the throwaway, unprompted line in her acceptance speech: “I nearly gave up”. But the Cinderella narrative, heartfelt as it is, doesn’t tell the whole story.
Popov didn’t begin her professional career in the wilderness. She didn’t chase her dreams on a whim, journeying from one place to the next in the hope of carving out an opportunity, somewhere, sometime. Plenty of golfers do that – most fail, some succeed. None of us would stick with it for as long as we do if we didn’t have the self-belief that’s tinged with a hint of delusion.
But whatever Popov dreamed of, delusion could never have been indicated. Sophia was always supposed to be a star… long before she became a Major champion.
She turned professional having reached pretty much the pinnacle of amateur golf. She enjoyed a stellar college career, was the European Individual champion, played in the Junior Solheim Cup, and reached a high of five in the world amateur rankings. Not exactly the ‘rags’ that precede a Cinderella story.
If you take a look at the recent men’s Major champions, they tend to share that common trait of winning regularly in the amateur game; and climbing the summit of those rankings. Popov perhaps would have been a solid bet upon turning pro of winning a Major at some point in her career.
And yet the fickleness of this sport is perhaps its only reliability. For me, that’s what makes this an even better story. Because in Popov lifting the AIG Women’s Open at Royal Troon, thousands of professional golfers saw themselves. Thousands of professional golfers saw the most forceful of breakthroughs in careers that had wandered and stumbled and fallen. Thousands of professional golfers saw a reason to keep going.
Sometimes that reason seems a thousand miles away when you’ve had five missed cuts in a row and can’t find the right questions to ask, let alone the right answers.
The relentless stream of shooting 73s and 74s that ask with unflinching clarity why you think the next time will be different. The cost of travelling to an event as second reserve, waiting in line at a far-flung airport check-in desk in the middle of the night, checking your current account balance at the same time you’re checking the updated entry list. The draining prospect of your next move as you lean on your rental car, clubs and shoes stranded on the hot concrete, another failed Monday qualifier laid to waste. Through all of the doubts, that reason clings on. Because every golfer at every level has seen a glimpse of their potential.
Whether it’s in fits and bursts, or sporadic glimmers, we see it and we dream of what it could mean. Sometimes it’s harder, I think, having seen it come and then disappear.
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Popov may have seen that reason grow more steadily in the weeks preceding her win, but we can only imagine how thin that thread had become over the years. She had to deal with climbing back up the mountain, having already fallen from the top of one. But she climbed it.
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Sophia Popov answered any demons she might have had, but she answered so many other people’s, too. It will be rare, a story like hers. But rarity is still reality for someone, somewhere. And that’s enough to keep all of our hopes and dreams alive.