Anika Varma battles back to T11; Sophia Popov clinches the title

Consistency was the key for Sophia Popov this week as she scored three straight 71s to clinch a two-stroke victory over Sarah Burnham. Anika Varma shot 74 in the final round.

Sophia Popov - Pic: Noah Montgomery

15 April 2020: A third straight 71 helped Sophia Popov clinch a two-stroke victory over Sarah Burnham, who was the winner in two of the three previous events on the Cactus Tour. They were the only two women who finished under-par at the end of another testing week at the Union Hills Country Club in Sun City, Arizona. 16-year-old Anika Varma overcame an early stutter, showing great composure to come home with a 74 to end her sojourn on the Cactus Tour on a positive note.

Popov started the day with a one-stroke lead and built on it straight away. The German shot birdies on both the par-5 holes on the front side before adding a third on the ninth hole for a majestic start. Burnham went past the bend in 35 strokes while Popov needed just 33 strokes. A birdie at the tenth cushioned the German’s advantage even further, but she conceded ground making a bogey on the 11th and a double on the 13th hole. Meanwhile, Burnham went through the back nine with a serenity that betrayed the tension simmering in the final group, her lone blemish a five on the par-4 14th hole. Popov was taking a more dramatic path, mixing up birdies on the 14th and 17th with bogeys on the 16th and 18th holes. But with those damages covered evenly, she came home safely to collect a memorable victory.

Anika Varma - Pic: Noah Montgomery - Cactus Tour
Anika Varma – Pic: Noah Montgomery – Cactus Tour

Anika Varma, working with Noah Montgomery on the West Coast of the USA, played some good golf over the past few weeks. The teenager finished T5 in last week’s event on the Cactus Tour and after being on the road for four straight weeks, can return to her studies knowing that the run in Arizona helped gain some valuable insight into the evolution of her improving game.

Since effecting some changes to her swing last year, Anika has been making steady progress and her transition to the US circuit has been rewarding. In the final round, Anika made bogeys at the 2nd and 4th holes but made amends with an eagle on the sixth hole, her second this week. Another birdie on the seventh helped her go under par for the round but the joy was shortlived. She conceded a bogey on the par-4 8th hole to go past the front nine in even 36 strokes.

“I am happy to be on the road and play these events, get some golf on my bag at this time. I believe this is a learning process for me and with every tournament has helped me become a better golfer,” said Anika. “I have been making some birdies, but I have also struggled to save par on other holes. But I hope that these experiences will make me a better golfer.”

“I feel that I am strong under pressure,” said Anika speaking about her strength of mind. “I aim to be consistent on the course, find the fairways and try and just stay even with the course. The pin positions have been challenging and the conditions have not been easy in Arizona. The courses in Arizona are also set up long and need you to think about your next shot constantly.”

Bogeys on the 11th and 12th holes hurt Anika. Once again she bounced back with a birdie on the 16th but conceded the advantage with a bogey on the final hole for a 74 to end the week in T11.

“I am really impressed with Anika on this swing in Arizona. We made some big swing changes before the Indian Open and they are beginning to take hold. I am also encouraged by the way she improved after we made some changes with her wedge game after the third round of the first week,” said an impressed Montgomery.

“I think she is pretty good for a teenager,” added her coach. “She is not happy with her scores here, but she is very steady and I like that. But at the same time, she is not panicking or getting unsteady on the course. And I think that will hold her in good stead in the days ahead.”