Glory for Sophia Popov in the Women’s Open would represent one of the most staggering tales in a routine sporting year, let alone one as unorthodox as this. The lack of awareness relating to Hinako Shibuno, who triumphed at Woburn 12 months ago, was generally UK-centric. Shibuno had arrived at the event when 44th in the world and fresh from wins in Japan. Popov headed to Royal Troon, where experience is supposedly a crucial commodity, as ranked 304th.
Much of her 2020 has been spent on the Cactus Tour, which controversially ploughed on in competitive form during lockdown with purses of about $3,000. By Sunday evening, Popov could be $675,000 richer for following in the footsteps of Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer as a German major champion. Heads would turn.
Popov has no main tour victories to her name as a professional. She only qualified for this major in early August, thanks to a top-10 finish at the Marathon Classic in Ohio. A week earlier and because she didn’t have sufficient status to play herself, Popov caddied for Anne Van Dam as the LPGA Tour emerged from shutdown.
The 27-year-old, born in the United States but of German nationality, has a best Women’s Open finish of tied 67th; that was nine years ago when still a teenage amateur. Popov’s pre-tournament odds of 100-1 actually appeared unfathomably short. There’s a time-honoured reason bookmakers tend not to be paupers.
With just 18 holes to play, Popov’s advantage over the field is three. When pressure should supposedly be intense, the leader performed apparently free from any nerves at all. A 67, equalling the low round of the week, has been added to earlier rounds of 70 and 72 for a four-under-par aggregate. She can’t, can she? Raw numbers quell cynical assessment.
Given the tournament’s organisers are due immense credit for smooth delivery of an international event, the range of flags as adorn the leaderboard is appropriate. Germany, Thailand, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand, the United States and Korea all feature prominently.
Minjee Lee and Jasmine Suwannapura complete just a trio of players under par, with both at minus one. Suwannapura made a bogey at the last for a 69, with Lee posting the same Saturday score. Austin Ernst was even par before a bogey at the last.
In what is a wonderfully congested competitive scene, Lydia Ko could yet emerge as Popov’s greatest threat. The one-time teenage prodigy, still only 23, returned a 72 to sit at two over. If Ko wins here, the reverberations throughout golf will be significant.
Lindsey Weaver, who is still very much in contention at one ahead of Ko, used day three to produce one of the marquee moments of the tournament so far. The American seemed to turn away in disgust after chopping out from an ancient dune behind the 12th green. To Weaver’s shock, the ball rolled into the hole for an unlikely par. The 26-year-old is conjuring memories of the 19th-century major antics of Mungo Park by looking to prevail minus the services of a caddi
On what was the most tame day of the competition in terms of the weather, opportunities were plentiful. Caroline Masson acknowledged as much after a 68, which left her just five from the lead. “It was a little bit easier than the last couple of days,” said the German. “It was just a little less wind. But it’s still tough, no doubt about it. There’s a lotof crosswind.
“You always make the turn here and think it gets easier but it doesn’t, because that wind is coming in hard off the left on the back nine. You have to really focus, you have to hit good shots and think your way around a little bit. If you get out of position, take bogey if possible and move on. I think we have done a good job doing that.”
Catriona Matthew’s 74 slipped Europe’s Solheim Cup captain back to eight over par. Georgia Hall is plus 10 but Mel Reid, who came within a shot of missing the cut, signed for a 68 to move inside the top 30 at six over.
All eyes, though, are on Popov. She won when the Cactus Tour stopped at Arizona’s Troon North in late May. This could be quite the double.