24 Aug 2020 | Professional golf |

Lee bows to bolter Popov's heroics

by Mark Hayes

German Sophia Popov beams with pride in lifting the Women's Open trophy.
German Sophia Popov beams with pride in lifting the Women's Open trophy.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you punch, you simply can’t knock down your opponent.

Such was the case for Minjee Lee today as she threw a series of haymakers at Sophia Popov, only to watch the German stand tall for one of the most incredible wins in the history of the Women’s Open.

West Australian Lee, the world No.8, and Thailand’s Jasmine Suwannapura, a dual LPGA Tour winner, began the final round three shots behind Popov at a Royal Troon course that can bring any nervous player undone in a heartbeat.

Surely, they thought that if they could fire rounds well under par, the world No.308 – without a win on the LET, LPGA or even Symetra Tour – would buckle.

They were wrong.

Popov, 27, with multiple shots in hand, took a conservative bogey up the last hole to eventually beat Suwannapura by two strokes at seven under.

Including an unlucky break on the first hole today, it was about the only time she didn’t look like making or breaking par in 36 spectacular weekend holes; her closing rounds of 67-68 made even more remarkable given that there were only four players under par for the tournament.

“I almost quit playing last year, thank God I didn’t,” said Popov, who played her only other Open in 2011 as an amateur.

“I was uber nervous all round, but I’m so glad to get it done.

“It was weird, because inside I was making so many good shots the last three days and you had to considering these conditions.

“But I had this belief that no matter what happens today, you’re always capable of making birdies on any hole so keep your head in it. And here I am.

“It feels amazing, there’s a lot of hard work and struggles behind it in the last six years, I’m just glad I was able to overcome everything and keep my head in it.”

Lee and Suwannapura poured the pressure on throughout. The Thai made six birdies in her superb 67, but ultimately paid the price for bogeys on the 11th and 13th that eased the pressure on Popov.

And Lee suffered a similar fate with the putter as she had in the third round, watching in quiet disbelief as a string of birdie chances slid agonisingly by the cup.

After still being five over par in total through 24 holes of the tournament, it was no mean feat for the Royal Fremantle member to contend so fiercely.

And while a major championship still eludes her – today’s third place her equal best finish on the big stage – it is bound to come if she plays as she did in the final three rounds at Troon, making 10 birdies against just two bogeys in the final 52 holes.

There were times today when Lee looked as though she would turn the screw on Popov, but the German held firm when required, most notably making a birdie on the 15th after a spectacular recovery from deep rough off the tee.

Lee, herself, made one extraordinary recovery.

It appeared as though the Australian’s charge might die on the hill left of the famous Postage Stamp green.

But an up-and-down for the ages, including a 20-foot par putt after she had to pitch away from the pin with her second, was a moment to savour.

Yet even that was not enough to buckle her playing partner, who only arrived in Scotland on Tuesday after playing on the Symetra Tour in Arizona last week.

It will be a long time before she returns to that second tier now.

“To be honest, Sophia played so well pretty much all day, and whenever she looked like she was going to make bogey, she would make a par putt, and she made a lot of birdies out there,'' said Lee. "I don't think anybody could have beaten her today. At the beginning of the week, if you said I would have finished third in a Major championship, I'd take it any day. I was a little bit disappointed in my ball-striking, but other than that I had a pretty solid week.”

Of the other Australians, Katherine Kirk was on a rollercoaster, even though it mostly took place off Broadway.

The Queenslander opened with a birdie after her Saturday best 67 and looked capable of making a charge.

She exchanged a bogey and another birdie before striding to the Postage Stamp 8th hole and promptly ended her faint chances with a triple-bogey six.

Kirk made back-to-back birdies on the 13th and 14th to rally, but gave them back with a pair of closing bogeys and eventually signed for a 74 to finish six over in a share of 22nd.

Hannah Green completed a particularly rare feat in making 18 consecutive pars in her round of 71.

And while the West Aussie would clearly have liked a few red numbers on her card, the feat enabled her to stay at seven over, but climb from 33rd after round three to a share of 29th in her second week back on tour.

After playing herself back into the tournament with bold second and third rounds, the effort told on Queenslander Sarah Jane Smith, who fell back to 70th with a 78 to finish 17 over.

Steph Kyriacou capped a memorable week with another impressive round in her major championship debut and just her third event as a professional.

The Sydneysider was one under for her round standing on the 14th tee, but made four late bogeys and signed for a 74 that left her at 19 over and a share of 72nd place.

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