There may not be another professional golfer on an April winning streak. Sophia Popov’s recent success on the Cactus Tour tells a story of intense attention to detail amid a Symetra Tour shutdown forced by the coronavirus.
In March, Popov — based in Fountain Hills, Arizona — had flown across the country to start her season. The tour was scheduled to come west at the end of the month, but that never happened. Instead, Popov found herself alternating between backyard practice and trips to her local course.
“I was like, this is going to be wild if I have to do this for four or five months,” Popov said.
In January, just like in past years, Popov had played a couple of Cactus Tour events as a tuneup for the upcoming season. After the Symetra Tour started canceling events, she picked up the phone and called Cactus Tour owner Mike Brown. He told her about all the safety measures in place: limited interaction with other players, inserts in the cups and directions to leave the pin in the hole.
Popov was sold from the health aspect. Then she started pulling up entry lists.
“The first one I played, I looked at the entry list and I’m like, Anna Nordqvist? Linnea Strom? I was like what the hell?” she said. “It feels like an LPGA field. It was funny, there were probably six or seven LPGA players in it.”
She entered a March event at Moon Valley Country Club, finishing T-10, seven shots behind Nordqvist. Popov played four of the next five events, winning for the first time April 15 at Union Hills Country Club in Sun City, Arizona.
As Las Colinas in Queen Creek, Arizona, this past week, Popov went 22 under with rounds of 61-69-64. She finished nine shots ahead of runner-up Britney Yada and set a course record and a tournament scoring record in the process. Her putter carried her, but Popov is seeing her wedge game and her irons come together too.
Popov, who started her career as an LPGA rookie in 2015, is realizing that this unscheduled downtime has allowed her to hone in on the parts of her game that needed work. Now she feels comfortable over every shot and is excited to get to the course for each round.
“Quarantine has given me a little more time to intensely work on parts of my game that maybe the offseason didn’t give me,” she said. “I didn’t work on specific shots very well and now I feel like I did that. I feel like I really picked numbers and said alright, I’m really going to grind and work on 70-yard shots and 75 or 95 or 90 – some shots I usually feel uncomfortable with.”
At last fall’s LPGA Q-Series, Popov finished one shot out of the top 45 – the magic number needed to earn some level of status on the LPGA in 2020. In some ways, it was a blessing. She knows what it’s like to be too far down the priority list to get into early-season events.
This year, she decided to focus solely on the Symetra Tour, finish in the top 10 on the money list and earn full status for the 2021 LPGA season. These few wins won’t change that focus.
“It’s still the most important thing for me,” she said.
For now, Popov plans to play two more Cactus Tour events. She’ll regroup next month when the mini-tour takes a break. The Symetra Tour is scheduled to resume mid-June.
Some players have endured criticism for continuing to tee it up in mini-tour events among stay-at-home orders. In fact, Popov saw some of the messages sent their way and was horrified.
Cactus Tour fields often make up a very small percentage of the play at any given tournament venue, with most golf courses in Arizona open for public play. Popov is also an avid hiker – a hobby she has been grateful for during the pandemic – and compares the two outdoor sports.
“When I go on my hikes,” she said, “I feel like there are a lot more people on those hikes than on the golf course.”
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