Written By: Sophia Popov

Sophia Popov is the 2020 AIG Women’s Open champion.

Read more at https://www.lpga.com/news/2020/sophia-popov-a-letter-to-my-sisters-on-tour

A letter to my
sisters in the game:

I know what it’s like to struggle. I
know all the questions you ask yourself, the doubt and frustration you
sometimes feel. I know about the sweat, the countless hours of hard work and
the emotional energy you invest only to see your dream slip further from sight
like a ship disappearing in the twilight.

I know what it’s like to stand on
a mountaintop of expectations. And I know what it feels like to fall.

And I know what it’s like to
think it’s time to walk away.

When I holed my last putt at
Royal Troon to make the AIG Women’s Open, a major championship at one of the
most storied courses in the world, my first professional victory outside of the
Cactus Tour, I remembered all those feelings. And a single thought ran through
my head as clear as a Scottish church bell.

Thank God I didn’t give up.

For a long time, I didn’t believe
winning would be part of my story. I told myself that too much time had passed.
Even though I was only 27 years old, I know that the calendar for female
athletes, even golfers, is different. The average age of a first-time winner on
the LPGA Tour is 23. After winning five events and being a three-time
All-American at the University of Southern California, I believed that I would
be in the category soon enough. I had grown up playing with people like Jessica
Korda and Lexi Thompson, Mariah Stackhouse and Alison Lee. I knew what it took
to compete, and I knew that there were times when my game was on par with
theirs.

But in the beginning of my rookie
year on the LPGA Tour in 2015, I felt that something wasn’t right. I flew to
Australia for the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open and felt fatigued. At
first, I thought it was jetlag, but realized that this was something else. This
was a different kind of exhaustion.

Then I couldn’t keep food down.
Not a stomach flu or what you might get after eating something rich and exotic
in a foreign country, this seemed chronic. I love food but suddenly I couldn’t
enjoy eating. I didn’t have any appetite. In nine months, I lost close to 25
pounds.

Something was wrong but no one
could tell me what it was. Doctors ran all kinds of tests, which came back
negative. Some doctors thought it was fibromyalgia. More than a few told me that
it was all in my head. That this was a physical manifestation of stress and
anxiety from being on Tour. I didn’t have a medical degree, but I knew that
wasn’t right. I’d been competing at high levels for most of my life. I’d
represented my country and my continent on the international stage. I knew
pressure. This was something else.

I struggled for three years, a
time when I lost my full status and bounced back and forth between the LPGA and
Symetra Tours, fighting through symptoms like numbness in my extremities that
sometimes made it impossible to feel the club in my hands, blurred vision, and
excruciating headaches that made it impossible to focus.

I asked myself often, ‘Is this my life, now? Is this my future?’ And, of course, I asked, ‘Why me?’

Finally, almost three years after
that flight to Australia, I went to another doctor who asked the question that
changed everything. “Have you ever looked into Lyme disease?”

I hadn’t even thought about Lyme
disease. When I took the test, positive results came back almost immediately.
The doctor said, “When we get results that quickly, it means the disease has
been in your system for some time.”

While Lyme disease is a serious
illness that can have lasting effects, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.
I had an answer. Every symptom suddenly made sense. Now, I could research and
create a plan to combat it.

After many hours and much
consultation, I went on a strict diet – detoxing for a full week and then going
raw for three weeks, eating only raw fruits, veggies, and smoothies. The first
week, I felt horrible. Detoxing is a withdrawal that makes you wonder if it’s
worth the effort. But after that first week, I found that I had amazing energy.
The headaches and numbness went away, and my vision cleared. My hands still get
cold in relatively warm weather – something that viewers of the AIG Women’s
Open noticed when I put mittens on between shots. But the worst of the symptoms
vanished.

Lyme disease isn’t a cold or the
flu. I will be battling it for some time. And as anyone who has changed their
diet can tell you, it takes discipline and determination not to backslide. But
I also think we underestimate the power of food. In my case, my diet made me
healthy and able to rekindle a game that I almost lost.

Which brings me to my message to
you, my dear friends on the Symetra Tour and other developmental platforms. The
difference between where you are and where you want to be isn’t as great as it
sometimes seems. In fact, the line between being a major champion and
struggling to regain your LPGA Tour card is razor thin.

The difference isn’t hard work.
We all work hard. It’s not natural talent. Sure, some players are gifted with
more speed or height or strength than others. But talent alone means almost
nothing. We all know talented athletes who never broke through.

No, the difference is one
simple word: Belief.

People in Germany expected a lot
out of me, especially when I came out of college. And while I kept telling
myself that that player was still in there and still capable of being one of
the best in the world, month after month, year after year of near misses wore
me down. Everyone else believed in me but I lost a little of that belief in
myself.

In the last nine months, healthy
and playing well, my belief returned. And at Royal Troon, for the first time in
my professional career, I could see myself holding the trophy before it
actually happened. I could, for the first time, close my eyes and see my face
as the winner, see my name on top of the leaderboard, see myself as not just
among the best but as a major champion.

During a practice round in
Scotland, I played with Jess and Nelly Korda and Jessica, whom I’ve known since
junior golf days, asked me about my schedule. I told her I didn’t know because
the AIG Women’s Open was a bonus. “I would need to win for it to make a
difference,” I said.

Sunday night after I won, Jess
texted me and said, “Love how we were talking about this on Wednesday.”

Two years ago, I wouldn’t have
mentioned winning a major to another Tour player. I’m not sure the thought
would have entered my mind. The fact that it did was part of my new-found
belief.

One of the questions I’ve been
asked since my win is: What kept you from quitting?

I’ve thought a lot about my
answer. There were times when walking away seemed like the only rational thing
to do. My mother and boyfriend would even say things like: “Why do you keep
beating yourself up like this? Go do something else.” But one response kept
coming to me. I can’t quit golf. I love the sport too much. I practice and play
golf every day. I watch golf on television every week. I think about golf all
the time. I can’t walk away. I just love it.

Many of you feel the same way.
So, my friends, my sisters, I want you to know that you aren’t delusional for
sticking with it. You aren’t that far away.

Someday I look forward to hugging
and congratulating you as you break through and realize your lifelong dream. It
can happen.

Just remember one thing: love and belief make all the difference.

#DriveOn

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