Royal Troon certainly threw up a shock winner when American Todd Hamilton triumphed at the 2004 Open, and a similar surprise might well be in store at the AIG Women’s Open on Sunday.
Sophia Popov from Germany holds a three-stroke lead following the only bogey-free score of a strange third round in which most of the favoured names scattered strokes, leaving a largely unheralded assortment of leading contenders.
Popov, who shot a terrific 67, certainly qualifies as the poster girl for the unsung. When the women’s game resumed in America a month ago, the elegant 27-year-old was not even eligible for the first event, caddying instead for Anne Van Dam from the Netherlands. The following week, she did get a start and finished ninth to punch her ticket for Troon.
She did not bother coming over early, looking to bolster her part-exempt LPGA status by playing in America, and justifying her decision by finishing second. Popov arrived from Arizona last Tuesday, and had just one practice round.
‘I look upon playing in the Open as just a bonus, really,’ she argued. It could be the bonus of a lifetime if she follows in the footsteps of Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer to become just the third German to win a major.
She certainly played beautiful golf down the stretch to establish her advantage, but will she wake up today the same player? Perhaps a nice omen came during lockdown, when she played on the Cactus Tour in Arizona, winning three times including once at a course called… Troon North.
‘I’m so happy, and to shoot four under and be bogey-free was more than I could have imagined,’ she said. ‘I know I’m going to be super-nervous but I also know my game is in good shape, and I feel comfortable round this course.’
One thing that might help her is the fact there is only one proven major winner in the top 10, and New Zealander Lydia Ko will start six shots behind with her own demons to overcome as she finds her way back to the top following a serious loss of form.
A bigger danger might well prove to be Australian Minjee Lee, the world No 8 who should have won a major by now, and will start as her nearest pursuer, alongside Thai Jasmine Suwannapura.
Fellow German Caroline Masson is five behind, as is Lindsey Weaver, the game American who has been taking on the world’s best without the benefit of a caddie, pulling her own trolley. She provided perhaps the day’s highlight at the 12th where she was in all sorts of trouble, only to chip in from an improbable spot 25 yards from the flag for the unlikeliest of pars.
There is no getting away from the fact the British challenge has proved a huge letdown, non-existent even, following the excitement of Catriona Matthew’s opening round of 71 in Thursday’s tempest. There’s not a single Brit in the top 25, with Matthew falling back with a 74 and 2018 winner Georgia Hall even further adrift after a 74 of her ownThe only glimmer came from Mel Reid, who shot 68 to come from way back to be leading Brit in tied 26th place.