It was late last month at Royal Troon in Scotland that she produced a victory for the ages by winning the AIG Women’s Open by two shots. And the most remarkable thing about her emotional rollercoaster of a win? She was ranked 304th in the world at the time.
Popov — who was born in the US — hadn’t won on either the LPGA Tour or the Ladies European Tour before this year’s Open. She lost her tour card and at one point considered giving up the sport altogether.
Few who witnessed her victory will likely forget her victory speech, as Popov fought back the tears to reflect on the most unlikely of victories.
“Every time I talk to someone and they ask me about, you know, the last five or six years, I just always tear up because it’s such a struggle and I can’t even put into words what it is,” Popov told CNN Sport.
Overcoming life’s hurdles
And “struggle” is putting it mildly when you consider all she’s had to overcome in life.
An inspiring journey of courage if ever there was one, bravely overcoming one hurdle after another, most notably Lyme disease and the three years it took to actually get diagnosed.
“There were weeks over the last few years where I honestly couldn’t get out of bed for days,” reflects the 27 year-old.
“It felt almost like having mono and having six different diseases at the same time. I didn’t even know what was going on. I had stomach issues. I lost kind of feel in my arms, in my legs. And just weird symptoms where I didn’t know what to do with it, doctors didn’t know what to do.”
It’s taken hard work and dedication for Sophia to get to this point in her life, devoting countless hours to research and finding out the best ways to not just get healthy but to stay healthy.
“I just pay so much attention to my nutrition and how I work out and the time I give myself as far as meditation and yoga and all that stuff,” added Popov.
“It’s just nice to see that I could be out there for five weeks and win a tournament after the fifth week. That’s the result of hard work and working out extremely hard.”
Golf in the era of Covid-19 means no fans on the course but Popov did at least get to share her big win in Scotland with somebody very special indeed — her caddie and boyfriend Maximilian Mehles who’s been with her every step of the way.
“I think being able to share the entire experience that week just made it that much more emotional because he’s been through everything with me,” says Popov.
“We’ve been dating for six years now, so really he’s seen it all. All the health struggles, everything. All the hard work and just trying to fight back. He knows how much it means to me and I think it means just that much to him also.”
A career-defining moment for Popov? Yes, without doubt but don’t expect it to change her.
She describes her winner’s cheque of $675,000 as a “financial cushion” and she’s already discovering how much more media attention she’s likely to get moving forward.
“It’s changed my life in many ways but I honestly hope it hasn’t changed me because that’s the biggest goal,” she said.
Popov says she was “very close” to quitting the sport, revealing there were four or five different occasions that she talked it through with her family.
“I was looking at doing my Masters. I looked into about 10 to 15 programs last year. And the same I did as far as jobs and applications.
“Now going into my LinkedIn account, I’m like, well I probably should have cleaned that up a little bit but I don’t have to now anymore, so it’s fine!”
It’s not all been smooth sailing for Popov though — who has climbed up the world rankings to 24th and now joins Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer as German golf major winners.
Major wins result in a five-year exemption on the LPGA tour but, with the majors out of order this year due to Covid-19, this won’t start until 2021 for Popov.
LPGA rules for the upcoming season also mean Popov isn’t eligible to play the next major — the ANA Inspiration starting on September 10 — because she wasn’t a “full” tour member at the time she triumphed at Troon.
It’s a decision that has led to widespread criticism.
“It’s the regulation we started the season with,” said LPGA commissioner Mike Whan in a video statement posted Friday. “It’s what we’ll finish the season with.”
Whan added he’s reassess the regulations and restrictions at the end of the season, as he does every year.
‘Your dreams can come true’
Her life story is inspiring to say the least. Now, it’s inspiring others that now motivates her.
“All I can say is, regardless of whether you’re a golfer or a non-golfer, you never just never know when it’s going to happen.
“For some people, it happens earlier. For some people, it happens later. No one is going to tell you ahead of time, there’s no schedule for life. Your dreams can come true at some point. You just need to believe in them and don’t quit.”
Before the interview ends, there’s time for one last question. Where is that coveted trophy she just won in Scotland? Turns out it’s right alongside her. And don’t think she’s about to give it up any time soon!
“I honestly don’t want to let it go. I don’t leave it out of my sight ever any of the days and the first thing I wake up, after I wake up in the morning is I grab it and I just, you know I hold onto it for dear life because I don’t want to give it away,” she said.