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Underdog Sophia Popov leads by 3, looks to make German history at AIG Women’s Open

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Sophia Popov moved into position Saturday to shock the world.

The 27-year-old German took control of the AIG Women’s Open in the third round, putting up the first bogey-free round of the week at Royal Troon, a 4-under 67 that left her at 209, three strokes ahead of Australia’s Minjee Lee (69) and Thailand’s Jasmine Suwannapura (69).

Popov is playing like a world beater looking to add another major championship trophy to her collection of them, except . . . 

She has never won an LPGA, LET or Symetra Tour event.

She has never won on any tour the Rolex Women’s World Rankings recognizes for rankings purposes, though she did win three times this year on the Cactus Tour, a women’s developmental circuit in Arizona.

They were her first wins anywhere as a professional.

Highlights: Popov (67) opens up 3-shot lead at Women's Open

Highlights: Popov (67) opens up 3-shot lead at Women's Open

Popov is No. 304 in the Rolex rankings and isn’t even an LPGA member this season after losing her conditional privileges a year ago and then failing to win them back by a single shot at LPGA Q-Series.

Just three weeks ago, Popov was caddying for her best friend, Anne van Dam, at the Drive On Championship in the LPGA’s restart. Two weeks ago, Popov unexpectedly landed a spot in the field at the Marathon Classic as a Symetra Tour player when the LPGA was unable to fill its field amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. She tied for ninth there, her first top-10 finish in 32 career LPGA starts, and it qualified her for this week’s AIG Women’s Open, just her fourth major championship start.

So, this meteoric rise is all a bit breathless.

Even Popov didn’t see it coming, not this quickly.

“I was joking about it last week,” Popov said. “I said, 'Well, you never know, maybe I can get myself in contention next week. Even though I was joking about it, I knew I'm capable of it. I think the expectation in my head has always been there. It's just whether I can make it happen. So, it's really nice to see that I can.”

Full-field scores from the AIG Women’s Open

Popov played the Marathon Classic with a push cart. She has her boyfriend, Max Mehles, on the bag this week. He’s a fellow German player, too, looking to get his pro career started when the pandemic abates.

The history to be made Sunday is compounded for Popov. She isn’t just trying to become the first woman to win a major at venerable Royal Troon. She’s trying to become the first German woman to win a major.

“There are going to be a lot of nerves there,” Popov said. “I would be lying if it wasn't that's way, and, also, I'd be very sad if it wasn't that way. That's why we play the sport. We do this in order to be in a position like I'm going to be in tomorrow.

“Yeah, definitely, it's something I've never been in, so we are just going to have to see how it goes and take it one shot at a time and just try to do my thing.”

Popov isn’t alone as a German with a chance to win. Caroline Masson is tied for fourth, five shots back.

“Obviously, it’s a huge deal,” Masson said. “Yeah, it’s something you dream about.”

There are a lot of players in position to break through to win their first major on Sunday, with only one major champion (Lydia Ko) among the top 12 on the leaderboard.

Robbed! M. Lee's birdie roll on No. 17 lips out hard

Robbed! M. Lee's birdie roll on No. 17 lips out hard

Count Minjee Lee among those looking to break through. She’s a five-time LPGA winner who’s No. 8 in the Rolex rankings. She is paired with Popov in the final round. Five years ago, Lee was paired with Inbee Park in the final round of this championship, when Park won at Turnberry.

“I feel like that really gave me a lot of experience, in terms of just being aggressive, and just being able to play in that kind of conditions, and to perform in those conditions,” Lee said. “I feel like I could draw a couple things away from just the experiences that I've had before.”

Ko is tied for seventh, six shots back after putting up a 72, despite a double bogey and a balky putter. She’s looking to win her third major, her first LPGA title in more than two years.

“This is a major championship, so there's going to be pressure at the top of the leaderboard, as well,” Ko said. “Hopefully, I'll just be able to focus on my game, and put my share of birdies out there. All I can do is post the best score I can and see where that leaves me.”

It hasn’t been a good week for the leaders at the end of a round. Amy Olson followed up her first-round 67 with an 81. Dani Holmqvist shot 77 after taking the second-round lead.

“I know where my game is at, and I know that it is in a good spot,” Popov said. “So, I can be aggressive with my shots, and, you know, keep those expectations low. But I definitely know what I'm capable of, and so keep that in the back of my head.”