One year ago, only the most dedicated of women’s golf fans had heard of Sophia Popov. What a difference a year makes.
Popov provided the Cinderella golf story of 2020, coming out of nowhere to win the Women’s British Open. She hasn’t shied away from the spotlight since.
Popov was dominant on Friday at the Bank of Hope LPGA Match Play at Shadow Creek, dismantling former world No. 1 Sung Hyun Park to win her pod and advance to the knockout rounds this weekend.
“Today was very solid right off the bat. I won the first hole and kind of never looked back,” said Popov, one of 16 survivors over the first three days at Shadow Creek.
Looking back is something Popov hasn’t really taken the time to do over the past months. The British Open win thrust her into the spotlight in the middle of a pandemic, and life has been full speed ahead since.
“You know I can’t remember where I was Memorial Day weekend last year, but it definitely has been a crazy roller coaster since then,” she said. “I never knew what was going to come my way the end of last year and the beginning of this year.”
What’s coming Popov’s way on Saturday morning is a match with Inbee Park, the Las Vegas resident and seven-time major champion. Park beat Gabby Lopez 2 and 1 to survive her group.
“Everyday I’m getting a little better with my game and making a few more birdies,” Park said.
An improving Park could be a scary proposition for Popov, but when life has been a banquet for the past nine months, she doesn’t seem concerned.
“I think I can have a good time playing Inbee tomorrow,” Popov said. “She’s obviously a really good player, but I’ve played with her a lot over the past few months. So, you know, it’s match play. Anything can happen.”
While Park is getting better each day, Danielle Kang has been in a zone all by herself all week. She easily handled good friend Lizette Salas 5 and 3 on Friday, and continued her streak of never trailing at any point in a match. Kang is also the only player to go 3-0 the first three days.
But beating her best friend didn’t feel great, Kang said.
“Of course I want to win whoever I’m playing, but it’s just different. It’s a different feeling, especially with Lizette,” she said.
Kang gets a Saturday morning matchup with Britain’s Bronte Law, who won her pod by overcoming a trio of American Solheim Cup players: Amy Olson, Annie Park and Austin Ernst.
“She is American, so I’m running with that trend at the moment,” Law said of playing Kang. “Obviously, Danielle is one of the best players in the world, so there is no more other to say than that.”
Much like Popov, another player moving on to the weekend is in the midst of her own whirlwind. Patty Tavatanakit, who rolled over Stacy Lewis 5 and 4 on Friday, is still riding the high of her own major championship win at the ANA Inspiration in April.
“I feel like I just keep making pars, and this course is such a beast that if you make par, eventually — if you keep making pars — eventually you’ll get your point,” Tavatanakit said.
The round of 16 starts at 7 a.m. Saturday, with the quarterfinals around 1 p.m. And it’s a loaded group.
In addition to Popov, Park, Kang and Tavatanakit, other major winners to survive pool play included Anna Nordqvist, Ariya Jutanagarn, So Yeon Ryu and Shanshan Feng.
Nordqvist claimed the biggest win Friday, knocking off world No. 1 Jin Young Ko 5 and 3, then beating her again in a sudden-death playoff.
Others to advance include Ally Ewing, Jenny Coleman, Brittany Altomare, Jenny Shin, Minjee Lee, Nasa Hataoka and Mel Reid
With temperatures expected to be near 100 degrees and the potential of playing four matches, players are preparing for a difficult weekend.
“It’s going to be 36, well 72 holes if we go all the way, right?” said Feng. “I need to go rest.”
Greg Robertson is a freelance reporter who covers golf for the Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .