Germany’s Sophia Popov produced a flawless third round 67 to emerge as a shock three-shot leader at the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon on Saturday.
On a day when the sun finally came out but a tricky wind still set a stern test, the 27-year-old finished on four under par 209.
Australia’s Minjee Lee and Thailand’s Jasmine Suwannapura were tied for second place. Playing together, they both shot 69 for one under par.
Popov has never won on the LPGA Tour and has not managed a top 50 finish in any of the women’s majors.
Her best performance in this event was a tie for 57th way back as a teenager at Carnoustie in 2011.
But she showed her class by becoming the first player in the championship to shoot a bogey-free round and she highlighted the effort with an eagle three at the long fourth, holing from ten feet.
She picked up her first birdie at the 12th and then slotted home a monster putt for a two at the par three 17th.
Popov only qualified for the event with a top ten finish at the Marathon Classic in Ohio earlier in the month and last week she was playing on the Symetra Tour in stifling heat in Arizona.
She only flew into Scotland on Tuesday.
“The eagle was a great kick start, and from then on everything went my way,” she said.
“Sometimes I am too hard on myself. It’s not realistic to expect perfect golf, especially out here.
“Seeing myself in this spot a week or two ago would have been unreal. But I know I am capable.
“My boyfriend is on the bag this week and that helps. He played for the men’s German team – that’s how we met.
She added: “I missed qualifying for the full LPGA Tour by one shot last year and I had a bit of a mental slump during the winter. Tomorrow it is just me versus pressure.”
Popov has won three times on the Cactus Tour in Arizona and perhaps it is an omen — one of her wins came in May at a course called Troon North.
Lee has often been seen as a major winner in waiting, and a round of thee birdies could have been even better if she had taken all her chances.
She has won five times on the LPGA Tour and had a top ten finish at the 2015 Women’s British Open at nearby Turnberry.
“Tomorrow, I’d love the weather to be like the first two days, really rough,” she said.
Suwannapura had four birdies to raise her hopes of joining Ariya Jutanugarn, the 2016 winner, as a Thai winner of the title.
“The whole week has been very challenging,” said the 27-year-old.
“After such a long break, I am really just grateful that we are playing tournament golf again.”
Lydia Ko maintained her hopes of a third major, and a recovery from a slump in form, with a battling 72.
She goes into the final round six shots off the lead.
But it was a sad third round for the halfway leader, Dani Holmqvist.
The Swede eased through the first seven holes in level par but then dropped four shots in the next five holes.
She finished with a 77 for five over par and nine behind Popov.