AIG Women's Open: 'Emotional' Sophia Popov ready to defend title at Carnoustie

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Sophia Popov poses with the AIG Women's Open trophy
Popov is the first German woman to win a major
AIG Women's Open
Date: 19-22 August Venue: Carnoustie
Coverage: Highlights on BBC Red Button and BBC Two

When Sophia Popov first drove into the Carnoustie car park this week a designated space was waiting to befit her status as defending champion.

Aside from its obvious convenience, parking in this elite spot also seemed to provide a moment of realisation. It was another time to pause and take in the significance of her achievement in winning the AIG Women's Open 12 months ago.

Popov's victory at Royal Troon was one of the great sporting stories as she became the first German woman to win a major. It was an intoxicating tale that offered some much-needed light relief in troubled, Covid-stricken times.

She was a 27-year-old journeywoman ranked 304 in the world on the road back from worrying illness. Out of nowhere she landed her first tour victory by beating the world's best golfers.

Now she is back in Scotland ready to defend a major crown over the fearsome links of Carnoustie, starting on Thursday.

"It's been a lot more emotional than I even thought it would be," Popov told BBC Sport.

"I was very excited to get back to the event anyway but just driving up and having your own parking spot and walking up and seeing pictures of yourself with the trophy, it just brings back a lot of memories from last year."

Twelve months ago Popov was only in the Troon field because, two weeks earlier, she had finished in the top 10 of the Marathon Classic, an LPGA Tour event for which she had not realised she would be eligible until the very last moment.

At the time she was playing on the feeder Symetra circuit and three weeks prior to the Women's Open had been a mere caddie for her best friend Anne van Dam in another LPGA event.

It proved an instructional exercise. Popov, whose career had been threatened by the debilitating effects of Lyme Disease, realised you did not have to fire at every pin and that there were more astute ways to make a score.

She only arrived at the Ayrshire links on the Tuesday, two days before what proved a life-changing championship started. Everything seemed a bonus and it prompted a sense of karma that turned Popov into a world-beater.

"I've always put so much pressure on myself and always tried to be this perfect ball striker when I'm out on the golf course," she admitted. "I always feel like I'm running out of time.

"Last year, for the first time, I played with more ease and just acceptance. I just accepted anything the way it came and that was just huge.

"You hit a bad shot, you've hit a bad shot. You find it and hit it again and being OK with that and being OK with myself was just a huge thing to boost my attitude."

Popov held the 54-hole lead and went out in the final group on Sunday. There were no spectators but plenty of apprehension.

Playing the first she wished she was already on the 18th, but that would have been to miss out on some majestic front-running golf. "Playing, I was just very nervous," she said. "It was gruelling."

A final-round 67 meant Popov finished seven under par and two strokes clear of the field.

"It was such an emotional win, it was just pure joy at that time too," she said. "And, I think, joy on the golf course too, because I was just so looking forward to being in that position."

Sophia Popov
Popov endured a tough Olympic Games

Now she needs to rediscover that sense of perspective because recent results have been disappointing. Last week the missed the cut at the Scottish Open, she was 40th at the Olympics and 60th in the Evian Championship.

But Popov was runner-up to American Ally Ewing in the final of the LPGA's matchplay event at the start of the summer. It is entirely possible that both players will be in opposition again at the end of the month at the Solheim Cup.

The German is certain to be a member of Europe's line-up and has already met skipper Catriona Matthew this week, and Popov will not feel any Solheim pressure during defence of her major title.

"Being part of that team calms me a little bit," Popov told me. "I think I can just go out here and have a good time.

"It would obviously be nice to play well and contend but either way I have that to look forward to in two weeks. It's an excitement that has been building up over the last three to four weeks but you have to take it day by day."

And she will be ready to embrace the Solheim Cup, but only when the fast-approaching time comes.

"I don't want to downplay it," Popov smiled. "It's been one of my biggest dreams from when I was little."

But before that there is a title to defend.

"Normally I'm way too humble of a person to even identify with something like that," she admitted in her pre-tournament news conference.

"But I know this week I can, so I'm just taking it all in. I'm like, 'yep, I'm defending.' So I'm getting better at just accepting that and being all cool about it," she added.

And the benefits of being the trophy holder extend beyond having a decent parking space. "You walk in the locker room and I have one of the first lockers," Popov revealed.

"Obviously [they are there] for all the previous winners, and that's just something that's very cool and I honestly didn't even know about until I got here."

Popov truly arrived 12 months ago. With her ready smile she will be one of the most popular figures when 8,000 spectators per day watch the final women's major of the year.

And whatever the result it promises to be a memorable week for the player. "This event is going to be special to me 10 years from now or 20 years from now," she said.

"This is always going to have been my first win on tour, so regardless if I win tournaments from here on out, this will always hold a very special place in my heart."

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