Fast start powers Popov to 64 at Pelican Women's Championship

Tampa (AFP) –


Sophia Popov rolled in five straight birdies on the front nine for a career best 18-hole score of 64 and a two-stroke lead after the first round of the LPGA Tour's inaugural Pelican Women's Open.

The reigning British Women's Open champion began her dynamic birdie run on the fifth hole seizing the opening round lead in a LPGA event for the first time in her career.

She finished with six birdies and a 29 on the front nine at the Pelican Golf Club in Tampa, Florida.

"I felt pretty confident coming into the round. The way it usually happens is that you’re not thinking, and I think that’s what was happening," she said of her 29.

“The putter was pretty hot and I wanted to keep giving myself chances. I felt comfortable on the greens.

"I wasn’t really thinking about the streak, but looking back I saw my scorecard on the leaderboard and was like, 'Wow, that's even better than I anticipated.'"

Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa was alone in second after a four-under 66 while South Korea's Kim Sei-young and American Ally McDonald were tied for third, three strokes back of Popov.

Canadians Brooke Henderson, who is seeking her 10th LPGA title, and Alena Sharp headlined a group of eight golfers a stroke back at two-under 68.

The tournament brings the LPGA back to the Tampa area for the first time since the 1989 St. Petersburg Women's Open. It was also pushed back from its original date in May due to the global pandemic which has killed 17,700 Floridians.

Popov stunned the golf world three months ago by capturing the British Women's Open championship at Royal Troon in Scotland.

She was ranked 304th in the world at the time and only qualified for the British Open with a top 10 finish at the Marathon Classic earlier that month. She made substantially more money ($675,000) for that single victory than she had in her entire LPGA career.

Popov said winning her first major has boosted her confidence to the point where she goes into tournaments believing she can win.

"I'm playing with a different confidence level. You know, the shots are there. I always had them," Popov said. "I think mentally I've never felt as freed up as I do now."

Popov got of to rousing start with a birdie on the par-four second hole. She parred Nos. 3 and 4 then caught fire on number five before ending her front nine with another birdie on the par-three ninth.

Popov added two more birdies on the back nine, closing out her round with a bogey on 18.

Buhai, of Johannesburg, birdied three of her final four holes to finish with five birdies on the day. Her only bogey came on the par-four second.

World number one Ko Jin-young shot a two-over 72 in her 2020 debut event. Ko opted not to travel when the LPGA tour resumed after its coronavirus shutdown, preferring to stay home in South Korea and compete on the KLPGA tour.

She skipped her title defence at the pandemic-delayed ANA Inspiration in September, and is returning to the LPGA tour for the first time in almost a year.