ORLANDO, FL (AUG. 31, 2020) --- This is a story of two professional golfers, both of whom won tournaments last week, whose careers are a study of contrasts.
One is a Hall of Famer who enjoyed immediate success; the other has struggled mightily. One’s name is familiar to even the most casual golf fan; the other likely is recognizable only by family and closest of friends. One has won almost twice as many major championships (5) as the other has played in (3). One is laying the groundwork for a career to take a new path; the other is trying to get a career on its intended path. One was so heavily favored last week, the win was like making a tap-in putt; the other so unlikely it was the equivalent of making a double eagle.
And, their victories came on courses as different as the champions themselves. The former won on Ozarks National, a hilly, year-old course near Branson, MO, set atop a series of ridges with spectacular views of surrounding foothills. The latter won at Royal Troon Golf Club, a classic links course in Scotland that opened in 1878, and has hosted The Open Championship (better known in the United States as The British Open) 10 times.
The sure-bet winner is Phil Mickelson, who won the PGA Tour Champions’ Charles Schwab Series tournament in Missouri. The surprise champion is Sophia Popov, who claimed the AIG Women’s Open (also known as the Women’s British Open) in Scotland.
All Things Considered…
Like the classic line by the late, great comedian W.C. Fields – “All things considered, I’d rather be in Philadelphia” – Mickelson rather would have been in Chicago playing in the BMW Championship, the second leg of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup Playoffs, instead of a Champions event in southwest Missouri.
But after Mickelson missed the cut at the Northern Trust tournament and failed to advance in the playoffs, he was a late addition to the tournament in the Ozarks (deciding to enter just four days before the event began).
Mickelson explained that he didn’t want a two-week layoff as he prepares for the U.S. Open, which begins Sept. 17 at Winged Foot. (He is next scheduled to play in The Safeway Open, which marks the beginning of the PGA Tour’s 2020-2021 season, in northern California’s Napa Valley – provided it isn’t postponed by the wildfires ravaging the state.) Faced with unexpected downtime, he decided to make his debut on age-50-and-over circuit. After all, it beats simply practicing on his home course.
It turned out to be a profitable move. The $450,000 check for first place is a nice payday, even for someone who has collected more than $91 million in official PGA Tour career winnings, according to Forbes.
A Heavy Favorite
The 50-year-old Mickelson was a heavy pre-tournament favorite. One Vegas sports book listed him at 5-2 odds to win (Steve Stricker was second at 8-1).
Choosing a favorite to win a golf tournament is extremely difficult, given all the variables (the course, the weather, the competition, how the golfer’s playing, etc.) Consider that entering 2020, according to PGA Tour statistics, Tiger Woods has the highest winning percentage in Tour history – he’s won 22.8 percent of the tournaments he’s entered (82 wins in 359 events). Ben Hogan is the only other golfer to top the 20-percent mark, at 21.3 percent (64 wins in 300 starts). Jack Nicklaus, considered by many as the greatest ever, is sixth, at 12.2 percent (73 victories in 595 tournaments).
So, 5-2 odds makes one almost a sure bet in golf. And, Mickelson acknowledged the pressure beforehand. “If you play well and win, well, you’re supposed to. If you don’t, it’s like, what happened.”
He didn’t disappoint. Mickelson opened with a 10-under-par 61, a record for lowest first round in a Champions debut en route to a wire-to-wire victory. He became the 20th golfer to win in his first seniors tournament (Jim Furyk also did it this year), joining an illustrious group that includes Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player.
Mickelson couldn’t have picked a course better suited to his game than Ozarks National. The Ben Crenshaw design features wide fairways, no rough and huge greens – all perfect for the aggressive-shot making that Mickelson likes.
Mickelson is a strong iron player, has an almost legendary short game, and is an excellent putter. When he gets into trouble, it’s usually because of his driver. But Ozarks National’s generous fairways let him bomb away.
And, he took advantage, frequently using that club. For instance, on the fifth hole during the final round Mickelson drove the green on the par-4 and sank a 25-foot putt for eagle.
Over the three days, Mickelson led the field in driving distance with a 325-yard average. According to PGA Tour statistics that is 23 yards more than the Champions tour leader in average driving distance.
A ‘Phil Buzz Saw’
With one eagle and 25 birdies, Mickelson posted a red number on almost half of the 54 holes over the three-day tournament. He stood 23 under par entering the final nine holes and seemed certain to break the Champions tour’s 54-hole record for lowest score in relation to par (25 under, set by David Frost in 2010). But, with a six-shot lead, Mickelson set it on cruise control and shot 1-over par for the last eight holes and settled for a four-stroke victory at 22-under.
Even then, Mickelson tied the Champions tour record for lowest 54-hole score, at 191.
“You know, sometimes you just run into a buzz saw,” runner-up Tim Petrovic told writers afterward. “I ran into a Phil buzz saw this week because he made a lot of birdies. I think yesterday I shot 31 on the front and I don’t think I picked up a shot, maybe one.”
The conditions promise to be much different at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, where Mickelson will try to complete the Career Slam (winning the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship), plus become the oldest golfer to win a major. Most notably, the fairways will be a lot narrower, and there will be plenty of rough.
But, a win anywhere is still a win. “I got to shoot scores and compete,” he told writers afterward. “The competition here is really strong. There was a lot of good, and there were things I identified I’ve got to work on.”
Now that he’s enjoyed his first taste of the Champions tour, will “Lefty” become a regular competitor?
When they turn 50, many players on the PGA Tour wrestle with the question of whether to continue full-time on the regular Tour, divide their time between the two tours, or transition completely to the 50-and-older set.
The Champions would love for fan-favorite Mickelson to play its events full time; he’d draw attention, similar to the bumps the tournaments received when Palmer and Nicklaus played. But Mickelson believes he can still compete regularly, and win, on the PGA Tour. So, it’s likely that for now he will limit his involvement with the Champions tour to the senior majors and perhaps a couple other tournaments.
Popov Has ‘Week of My Life’
Speaking of wins. If Mickelson’s victory was almost a sure bet, then Sophia Popov’s stunning win at the AIG Women’s Open was the stuff of fairytales.
A month ago Popov, who doesn’t have her LPGA Tour card, was caddying for a friend during an LPGA tournament. Today, she stands with Bernhard Langer and Martin Kaymer as the only Germans to win a golf major.
Only in Hollywood scripts does a golfer ranked 304th in the world go from competing on a second-tier circuit (the Symetra Tour), to caddying, to a top-10 finish in an ordinary LPGA event, to the classic champion-kissing-the-silver-jug pose for photographers in three weeks time. But, here was Popov starring in that role -- an improbable winner in an even more improbable year.
Even the confident Popov was stunned by her win in the Women’s British Open. “You can’t quite fathom what happened Sunday,” she told Golf Channel writer Randall Mell. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to go to Scotland and come back with this trophy.
“I pretty much had the week of my life.”
It seems somehow in step with this strange year -- when the COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down, when sports around the globe (including the AIG Women’s Open) are played without fans, when the Masters will be played in November and the Women’s U.S. Open in December, and when the PGA Tour’s 2020-2021 season is scheduled to begin before two of the 2020 majors are played – that the first women’s major of the year and the first women’s tournament ever on fabled Royal Troon would produce such an unlikely champion.
A Deserving Champion
Improbable, but deserved. In just her third major, Popov played without the visible nervousness one would expect from an untested golfer with a lead heading into the final round. After opening with a bogey, she answered with birdies on the second and third holes, and never looked back.
It was a steady, methodical approach: hit the fairways and greens, and avoid the three-putts. It wasn’t exciting -- like the chip-in and the laser-accurate drive late in the final round that helped Collin Morikawa win the PGA Championship in early August in San Francisco – but it was equally effective.
How Popov got into the tournament is as much a long shot as her victory. She lost her LPGA Tour card last year, and qualified for the AIG Women’s Open by finishing in a ninth-place tie at the LPGA Marathon Classic in Ohio, her first top-10 finish in 33 career starts on the tour. She got into that field only because COVID-19 restrictions prevented many international players from traveling, and the tournament needed to fill open spots.
Then those same COVID-19 restrictions opened enough spots at Royal Troon to enable Popov, who lives in Germany, to enter. “It is an incredible story personally for me,” the former University of Southern California golfer said. “It’s incredible that golf allows for these things to happen.”
Popov’s story is one of perseverance. After the tournament she mentioned that she’d been battling health issues for six years. She spent the first three years of her career fighting undiagnosed Lyme disease, which sapped her strength and led to her losing 25 pounds. And, she said, still struggles with it today.
After losing her LPGA card last year, she missed re-gaining it in qualifying school by one stroke, forcing her onto the second-tier Symetra Tour. Then that tour, like so many other sports leagues, shut down this spring because of the coronavirus. So, Popov competed on the Cactus Tour, an Arizona-based mini-tour that played through the pandemic break, winning three times (her only victories as a professional).
The Symetra Tour is to the LPGA what the minor leagues are to Major League Baseball. And, the Cactus Tour is to the Symetra Tour what Independent League Baseball is to the minor leagues. Safe to say, there were some bleak times for Popov.
Close to Quitting
She said she even considered quitting. “I was going to hang it all up and say maybe this is not the way my life is supposed to be going. At the end of last year, I did look into other options, like maybe going into broadcasting,” the 27-year-old communications major told Mell. “That’s been my post-golf dream since I graduated from college. I was seriously debating it.”
“(There were) a lot of struggles I went through, especially health-wise. I had a lot of obstacles thrown in my way so I’m glad I stuck with it,” she said at the silver jug presentation ceremony. “I almost quit playing – thank God I didn’t.”
Because now, she’s a Women’s British Open champion; her name etched on the trophy right along with some of the greats of the game.
It’s been said that winning a major is life changing, and in Popov’s case it’s true. It vaulted her a stunning 280 spots in the world rankings to No. 24. Plus, there’s entry into the other majors and A-list events, the endorsements, the notoriety, and the thrill of hearing an announcer on the first tee say, Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the 2020 Women’s Open Champion, Sophia Popov.
The victory certainly helps her bank account -- the $675,000 winner’s check is six times her previous LPGA career earnings.
One of the perks of winning the Women’s British Open is a five-year exemption into the five majors. Ordinarily, Popov would be an automatic entry into those events this year. But, in this pandemic-ravaged world when it seems that nothing is normal, Popov may not be able to compete in two of them – the ANA Inspiration (long known as the Dinah Shore) and the U.S. Women’s Open.
Normally, the ANA Inspiration and the U.S. Women’s Open precede the British Open. But because of the coronavirus, the first two were moved from their traditional spring dates until the fall (the ANA Inspiration is now scheduled for Sept. 10-13, and the Open for Dec. 10-13).
When the ANA Inspiration was postponed, it was decided to freeze the field as it was in March (for which Popov was not eligible then), and entries into the Open were set long ago. With the dates of the majors out of order this year, Popov’s exemption does not begin until 2021. (However, she is eligible for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in October.)
Surely, though, organizers of both events can find a place for golf’s newest majors champion. It is expected that, as with the AIG Women’s Open, COVID-19 restrictions will prevent a number of players from competing in both tournaments, which would result in vacant spots. Fields in majors should include majors champions.
The tournaments need to make an exception for Popov. In a year as crazy as 2020, what would be crazier than Popov winning back-to-back majors? Then Hollywood really would be calling.
Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.