Sophia Popov’s crazy ride: The AIG Women’s Open champion looks forward to her defence at Carnoustie

The German’s fairtytale victory in last year’s tournament was one of the highlights of golf’s 2020 season.

It's been a year of dizzy "Is this really happening?" moments for Germany's Sophia Popov.

Twelve months of golfing joy that has had her scratching her head at the dazzlingly surreal contrasts with what went before.

Annika Sorenstam used to rack up the wins; Popov landed a big one of those, but she also racks up remarkable transformations.

In May 2020, she was winning a fourth tier Cactus Tour event at North Troon GC, Arizona; three months later she was winning the AIG Women's Open at the real Troon - Royal Troon, Scotland.

In July 2020, she was languishing at 390 in the world; 12 months on she is the highest ranked European at No. 23.

At the start of August 2020 she was caddying on the LPGA for Anne Van Dam; three weeks later she used the different perspective that experience provided in devastating fashion.

In 2015, she was working for television during the Solheim Cup at her home club St Leon Rot; this year she will be an integral part of the team.

In 2017 she was diagnosed with Lyme's Disease, an explanation for the fatigue that had wrecked her early steps in the professional game; in 2019 it was still affecting her progress and she considered quitting the sport.

In 1960, her grandmother qualified for the German 1960 Olympics team, but injury prevented her competing in the high jump; 20 years later her mother (a swimmer) qualified for the US squad but the boycott kept her from Moscow and she was injured four years later; this summer Sophia has qualified to represent Germany.

In August she will defend her AIG Women's Open title at Carnoustie and, Popov being Popov, there is naturally a glorious echo of the past.

Back in 2011 she played in the first group out on the Thursday morning alongside the Swedes Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Hedwall.

"Honestly, I remember exactly what I felt like on that first tee," she said in a media call this week.

"I was just very quiet and serene, and then I went, 'Oh, no, I know exactly what this golf course can turn into.' Use every opportunity you have while the wind's not blowing."

She did just that, making birdie at the second hole, allowing her parents and friends, who had travelled from Germany, to note that the then-18-year-old amateur was leading a Major.

Exactly ten years later she will step on to that very same tee box to defend her trophy.

The giddy change in her life is something her parents appreciate most.

"When I think of all the hard work, the sweat and tears, all I went through in those nine years," she said. "I think my parents are the only ones who get a close-up view of what that's like. So it's been so special for them."

A friend painted a German flag poster with the words "Sophia Popov - just do it" on.

"I was kind of embarrassed," she laughs. "I was cringing because I thought, 'No-one even knows me out here, but I've got that one fan that's holding up a poster for me?!?'

"It was a good friend of mine and she was also one of the first people who messaged me and said, 'Remember this? It's been a crazy ride, a crazy transition, for the last nine years.'"

The Olympics, the return to Carnoustie, the Solheim Cup - the craziness is far from over.

Here's what else Popov had to say about a year that has seen her step up alongside the likes of Nelly KordaInbee Park and Lexi Thompson.

On her year

"I've been playing well ever since and I've had so many new opportunities that have been so exciting. Really, all I can say is it's just been an amazing 12 months and I'm just excited to see what the future holds.

"It's been amazing, but at the same time, very, very busy. I have off weeks that don't turn into off weeks, but you have a lot more obligations that come with playing well. So I wouldn't want it any other way. It's about being smart about the way that I schedule my events, my off time, my personal time.

"I've been playing with a different sense of, I would say, confidence and enjoyment, to be honest. It feels like I can finally unleash my full potential because I'm not afraid of the consequences, to be frank."

On the Solheim Cup

"It was always something I watched year in and year out and I was part of the Junior Solheim Cup so I knew how special it was. I have so many friends on that team (in 2015). Every year that it happened and I wasn't on the team was kind of a little bit disappointing to me. It's been a huge goal. Playing it would pretty much be the highlight of my career."

On the TrackMan she bought after the win

"I love TrackMan, love working with it, but I think recently, I've kind of gone 50-50 about trust and feel. I'm more of a feel player. The numbers can freak me out quite a bit. I think maybe that happened at the KPMG. I started looking at those numbers maybe a little too much, so I'm kind of backing off that now and going back to the player I feel like I was previously."

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