It’s been 377 days since that fateful day at Royal Troon, since Sophia Popov did the unimaginable. The German’s win at the AIG Women’s Open last August absolutely rocked the golf world. The ripple effects of that victory are still being felt all this time later.
Popov makes her Solheim Cup debut in Toledo this week, and even now that improbable day in Scotland still comes up. But the Team Europe rookie has her sights on a solid showing at Inverness Club, and on realizing a dream that’s been in the works for quite a while for the 28-year-old.
“It's an absolute dream come true,” said Popov. “I always wanted to be a part of this team, and I think in 2015 when I was commentating or any of the other years, it was always kind of one of those things that I missed out on. Obviously, winning a major is every female golfer's dream, and the British Open was very, very special for me because to me, it's the biggest one coming from Europe. Those were my two biggest goals, and now being able to achieve the second one just means a lot to me.”
Making a Solheim Cup team is an accomplishment that always tops the list for female professionals from Europe and the United States. Popov is striving to live in the moment and make the most of the opportunity she has to wear the blue and yellow. While the competition requires the steeliest of nerves, there’s something to be said for just enjoying yourself and that’s something that the rookie has already excelled at so far in Ohio.
“I'm having the greatest time right now,” Popov said. “Being out here with a lot of girls that I'm good friends with and that I really enjoy being around has just been so fun. I’m really taking in the atmosphere a lot. I like dancing and singing so that's been kind of a theme for me, and I've just been enjoying myself and trying to take it in because I know this week goes by really fast. I'm very, very honored to be repping the colors and I'm going to give it my best this week.”
Although she sat for the morning session on Saturday, Popov teed it up with partner Carlota Ciganda against Jennifer Kupcho and Lizette Salas for the fourball session in the afternoon. The German told her caddie early in the day that she was ridiculously nervous for the match ahead, but she sure didn’t show it after the first shots were airborne.
The first highlight of her Cup career came at the fifth when Popov curled in a lengthy birdie to win the hole, giving the crowd a massive Tigeresque fist pump. Another birdie from her on the seventh put the Euros 2-up with 11 left to play. The Americans quickly tied the match with an eagle on the eighth and birdie on the tenth and went 1-up after matching threes on the 14th.
Popov stepped up to the plate on the 16th, knocking her 131-yard approach to a foot, tying the match after converting the birdie. Pars on the 17th sent the teams to the 18th. While the halve looked imminent, Salas hit her approach to six feet, made the putt, and put a full point on the board for Team USA. While a loss wasn’t exactly what Popov had in mind for her debut, there were still plenty of positives to take away from Day One in Toledo.
“I think we actually played really well,” Popov said of her and Ciganda’s performance. “I think ball-striking wise both of us had a very good day.We made quite a few putts. But we didn't make the key putts in the key moments. Kudos to them. They played really well and they made those putts when it was necessary. Finishing up with a birdie on a not very easy pin position was extremely good for Lizette, It’s unfortunate because I felt like we deserved the win today. But it is what it is. That's how match play goes.”
Having an experienced partner in Ciganda too helped Popov assuage the nerves and anxiety that come with the first-timer territory. Rookies always tend to credit their veteran partners with keeping them calm in the throes of adrenaline that come with every shot struck in a Solheim and Popov was no exception.
"It's my first Solheim Cup. I was definitely nervous the first few holes,” said Popov. “I hit two great shots on 2 and that kind of calmed me down. And I think starting on No. 4 on I was playing very good golf. It's always easier to play with someone like Chiggy because she calmed me down. She’s a veteran. She hit some great shots throughout the whole round that kind of calmed me down because I know if I'm not in, she's in.”
But Ciganda was pleased to see her smooth things out after a slow start.
“Sophia played great,” said the Spaniard. “First match, first Solheim Cup, she started a little shaky, then she hit great shots. She was comfortable, making great putts. We played good.”
As she looks to tomorrow and the rest of the weekend, Popov has plenty of good momentum to ride into her upcoming matches. Though she’ll sit again for the morning foursomes session on Sunday, she’s looking forward to potentially being paired again with Ciganda and thinks that if the duo can continue their stellar play, they’ll be a deadly test for their opponents.
“I think it was a great way, honestly, to get into the Solheim Cup. I feel good. I'm excited to go into tomorrow's matches. I loved every minute of playing with Chiggy. She's awesome. I think if we play like that again, I think it's going to be tough to beat us.”
It’s much too early to tell, but you can be sure that Popov, a day older and a day wiser, with nerves soothed after a solid day one, is primed and much more prepared to help her team to the Solheim Cup. Now that’s she’s found her footing, it seems like the rookie could quickly become a game-changer for the Europeans, one that again could surprise us all.