Sport

World No 304 Sophia Popov holds nerve to claim shock Women’s Open title

For Sophia Popov a little piece of history alongside a $675,000 (£515,000) cheque. Victory in the Women’s Open – ultimately so comfortable the scale of her underdog status was easily forgotten – means the 27-year-old becomes the first German to claim a major title on British soil.

In the first staging of this championship on the famed Ayrshire links, Popov joins a stellar list – Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson et al – of iconic Troon major winners. Popov was in floods of tears even before tapping in for victory on the 72nd green.

That scene only emphasised earlier battles and a life-changing performance. Moments later she walked towards the clubhouse with champagne bottle in hand; even golf’s blazer brigade had to nod in approval.

This seemed the most unlikely of outcomes. Popov was chasing success in 54-hole competitions on the Cactus Tour in the middle of this year. The very name seems to perfectly articulate that level. She began this week as the world No 304 and without any apparent major credentials whatsoever. She did not even have status on the LPGA Tour. Now, Popov can pick and choose where to play.

She started day four holding a three-stroke lead, a supposedly dicey situation for a player unaccustomed to challenging for titles. Popov’s position never looked under serious threat. Her closing 68 meant a two-stroke success, at seven under par overall. Jasmine Suwannapura, the Thai player who like Tiger Woods has rebounded from career-saving back surgery, finished second.

“This feels amazing,” said Popov. “There has been a lot of work, there have been a lot of struggles. I knew I was capable, I just had a lot of obstacles in my way. The Women’s Open to me was a bonus. I got here on Tuesday, I knew my game was in good shape and anything was possible. I just took that belief into every round but I never expected this.”

If Popov was, quite understandably, never counting on victory, one hole emphasised what was meant to be. Her drive at the 15th appeared destined for one of the treacherous fairway bunkers, with the ball instead scuttling into adjacent rough. Her subsequent iron shot, from an uphill lie, finished 20ft from the hole. With the birdie putt duly converted, she led by four.

Only Suwannapura belatedly threatened to spoil the party, thanks to a superb birdie from 40ft on the 16th. Popov responded with another one of her own at the same hole. Suwannapura swung again, collecting another shot at the par-three 17th. Yet the leader knew only a disastrous finish would cost her the first women’s major of 2020. There was no such implosion, nor any suggestion of one. Minjee Lee finished third, at three under.

The Sunday scene was perfect. Gone were the gusts that affected the first two rounds, with the coast as close as seemed possible to flat calm.

Popov is due immense credit for this nerveless win but one wonders how the elements may have disrupted the mindset of one so unaccustomed to jousting for the top titles. She made bogey from sand at the first but bounced back with three birdies in her next five holes.

“I used to be a player who didn’t like to lead so this was a new position,” she said. “I just had belief going into this round. I told myself I was capable of birdies on every hole.”

Lydia Ko stood with arms aloft on the 18th green after converting a lengthy putt for par. The celebrations embodied her final day. At three over, the re-emerging New Zealander finished with a share of 14th. Better – much better – is surely to come from the two-times major winner. It would be wise to keep an eye on her during the remainder of this year.

So too Inbee Park, whose 66 meant fourth place. “It’s my husband’s first week at a major championship,” she said. “Posting a top-10 finish for him is a really nice thing to do.” Park, Lee, Suwannapura and Popov were the only players to break par.

This was a highly successful event and justified the persistence of the R&A in staging it. Pace of play, the scourge of golf in recent times, was not an issue at all.

Troon responded magnificently at a juncture where a major for the female game had never carried such value. The highest prize of all belongs to Popov. Cactus Tour no more. Eat your heart out, Bernhard Langer.