Sophia Popov: How I went from nearly quitting to winning a major

Editor’s Note: Sophia Popov wasn’t supposed to be in the field at the AIG Women’s British Open, let alone win it. Ranked 304th in the world and a member of the Symetra Tour, which is a developmental tour for the LPGA, Popov was a last-minute addition to the Open after finishing T-9 at the Marathon LPGA Classic. And she got into that tournament only because many international players were not traveling for competition as a result of the pandemic. Talk about a turn of events.

Popov, 28, the first German woman to win a major, lost 25 pounds in a battle with Lyme disease three years ago. And last year, after a long slump, she thought about giving up the game. Now, as a result of her major victory, she has full-member status on the LPGA Tour through 2021. She credits her turnaround mainly on hard work with the putter. In the tournament she averaged 1.71 putts per hole, hitting 78 percent of greens in regulation.

Belief was never quite there with my putting. I would question myself on the golf course and make tentative strokes. But during the quarantine, I worked hard on being a better putter, and it was a key factor in winning the British.

First, I worked on keeping my body still. I have a tendency to move away from the target during the stroke. To monitor my progress, I’d take video while practicing to make sure the extra movement was gone. Next, I worked on keeping the putterhead low. When it lifts up, it’s almost like I’m unsure of the putt. I also putt left-hand low, so the thought of keep my left wrist straight down the shaft through impact helped make my contact consistently solid.

The final thing I worked on was distance control, and it’s the thing most amateurs should work on, too. When average golfers miss, they think they misread the putt. In reality, it was likely missed because they’re not paying enough attention to speed. You need to figure out if you prefer to hit putts hard or die them into the hole—and then stick with that speed every time. For me, keeping my backstroke compact and gradually accelerating in the through-stroke improved the consistency of my pace.

The goal with distance putting should always be to leave yourself with an easy clean-up putt if you miss. That’s one thing I was proud of at the British.I left myself with a two-putt situation where it felt really uncomfortable only once or twice. So get the first one close to the hole. In stressful events, you don’t want to have to make a lot of five-footers.

As I started to realize I could win the British, two things really helped me stay in control. I blocked out the magnitude of the situation, and I pretended I was playing each shot at home against my friends. I also focused on breathing between shots. My technique was to exhale twice as long as I inhaled. I could feel my heart rate immediately slow. Try it when you find yourself in a tense situation. Maybe it will help you have your breakthrough golf moment, too. —WITH KEELY LEVINS


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