It had got to the point in her career that golfer Sophia Popov was contemplating trying her hand at something else.
She had played in eight LPGA events during 2019, making the cut just once, which made her question “a lot things.”
“I tried to reflect on the last five years before that and where I’m at and if it was where I wanted to be at that point,” Popov told CNN Sport’s Living Golf.
“I went to college until 2014, and definitely with the intention of doing something else after my golf career. And I think last year that became very real as far as potentially looking into doing something else.
“When I lost LPGA status last year, it was the first time in five years that I’ve fully lost my status, since gaining it in 2015. And I think that really made it very real for me as far as: ‘Okay what are the decisions that I’m going to make now?’”
Then everything changed. Ranked 304th in the world, Popov won the Women’s British Open in August.
“That’s the biggest check I’ve ever gotten at a tournament. When it hit the bank account, at first I’m thinking: ‘Gosh, illegal activity?’ What’s going on? This can’t be right,’” said the 28-year-old, as she reflected on her $675,000 win.
“But then I saw it sit there, and I go: ‘Well, this is what you have worked for six years. This is not a paycheck for one week of playing. This is for all the work you put in since you graduated college, and even before then. All the work that you’ve put in your whole life, just to get to that moment.’”
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In the aftermath of her two-shot victory at Royal Troon in Scotland – which helped her to jump 280 spots in golf’s world rankings from 304 to 24, the largest single-week jump for a player in history – Popov told CNN Sport’s Patrick Snell about the challenges she’d faced in her career.
“My rookie year in 2015, I started having a lot of pain and a lot of different symptoms. If I counted them all up, I’d probably be at like 14 different types of symptoms, and very debilitating.
“Not being able to play, being very fatigued, also mentally, kind of putting me in a very bad spot because I didn’t feel as though I could perform the way that I did during college or before I got sick.”
After a lengthy diagnosis search, Popov was finally told she had Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is the most common disease caused by ticks in the US, and with the climate crisis it may become even more common.
Fever, chills, body aches, swollen lymph nodes, neck stiffness, shortness of breath, headache, fatigue and a rash are all typical symptoms of Lyme disease.
Because the disease can often affect people in different ways – Popov says she heard from many different athletes who told her how “horrible” Lyme disease can be – the German, who was born in the US, decided to take her rehabilitation into her own hands.
“I did all my own research, and yes, I did see some doctors, but to me it was all about … I’ve gone through so much medication and so many surgeries in five years that I felt like I had to approach it a little bit more from a natural standpoint, because I knew another set of antibiotics was not going to do the job.
“So it was literally hours of researching and figuring out a diet that would work for me, that would make me better.”
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A surprise entry
Chance played a huge part in Popov even competing at the 2020 Women’s British Open.
She had caddied for her best friend and fellow golfer, Anne van Dam, at a tournament and then Popov played the Marathon Classic, in Toledo, Ohio in early July, finishing in the top 10 which, unknown to her, qualified her for the British Open.
“After I finished my round, I signed my scorecard, and Anne gives me a call, a FaceTime call, and she’s just yelling into the phone, and she’s like: ‘You qualified for the Open!’ And I was like: ‘What?’ It wasn’t even on my radar.
“I hadn’t even thought about that at all, and I just realized, I said: ‘Oh, great! The top 10 players that are not already qualified for the Open, have the Marathon Classic to qualify.’ And then I realized what had just happened, and that I had qualified, and went through all the steps of signing up.”
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A new kind of pressure
Going into the final day of a major with a lead, Popov says that Sunday morning at the Women’s British Open was “probably the most nervous” she had ever been “on the golf course and off the course.”
“I woke up pretty early, 6:30ish, even though I had a 1:45 tee time, and I think those are the most grueling six hours that you can go through until you start your warmup, because you’re just thinking about what’s going to happen and that whole round.
“So I think it was very important for me to just say: ‘Hey, normal routine. Go to breakfast.’ I wasn’t able to eat a lot because of the nerves, but kind of just go through the same process that you always go through.”
She admits that after that first tee shot of the final round, Popov settled into her routine and was able to relax.
Despite coming under pressure from Thai player Thidapa Suwannapura, Popov was able to shoot a three-under par 68 to claim an emotional debut major victory and achieve that “life changing moment.”
“There are different stages that you go through where you realize. The first one is before you even make that last putt. I knew: ‘This is a total game-changer for me.’
“In so many respects, but I think that especially when it comes to my golf game and the confidence that I’m going to take out of that week, and who I am now on the golf course versus who I was before. So there’s a before and after Sophia, almost, on the golf course.
“And then the weeks that follow after, it’s all the things, all the media requests that come in, all the congratulatory messages, all of that, you really have had two to three weeks to really soak it in and just … I don’t know, just enjoy it, because I think golfers or athletes in general tend to be people that just kind of move on really quickly.
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“It’s like: ‘Okay, you had success? Great. Whatever. Let’s move on.’ And I think I really took that time to actually enjoy it, and then with every day that passed, every time I looked at the trophy, it just became more real every time I looked at it, and I think that’s just a natural process.”
Despite the highs and lows of her career, Popov says she always knew she was capable of doing.
“It was just whether really just thinking about whether I wanted to put myself through that grind again or whether it was almost taking the easy way out maybe by looking into doing something else.”
Conor Powell contributed to this.