BELLEAIR — Sophia Popov put herself in a tough spot Friday afternoon when her drive on the No. 7 hole at Pelican Golf Club veered right and landed instead on the No. 4 fairway.
But she made a nice recovery shot out of the rough from behind a pine tree to save par on the par-5 hole.
Though she lost her first-round lead in the Pelican Women’s Championship, Popov’s ability to battle kept her in the hunt, as she shot par 70 to stay at 6-under for the tournament. She is tied (with Stephanie Meadow) for third heading into the weekend, two shots behind leader Sei Young Kim.
“Overall, I grinded it out and I made a lot of par putts coming in, so I’m pretty happy with my score,” Popov said.
The 28-year-old German, who shot 6-under 64 in Thursday’s first round, finished with three birdies, a bogey and a double bogey. She said she missed some greens in the wrong spots, particularly the double bogey on the par-4 No. 2 hole.
“I think this morning I started off playing really solid golf,” Popov said. “I was playing really well. Then the wind kicked up a little. I wasn’t feeling it with my driver anymore. Definitely struggled a lot with the driver on the back nine.”
Popov, who won the Women’s British Open at Royal Troon Golf Club in August, was in a group with World No. 1 Jin Young Ko and Ally McDonald, winner of the Drive On Championship at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Greensboro, Ga., in October.
McDonald, who started the day tied with Kim at 3-under, three shots back of Popov, used five birdies to shoot 4-under 66. She moved to 7-under for the tournament, one shot behind Kim.
Ko, making her season debut on the LPGA Tour after spending most of the season playing in South Korea, shot 1-over 71 on Friday to move to 3-over for the tournament, tied for 48th.
“To me, it was really fun (playing with them),” Popov said. “Ally had a good start, too. When I started making a couple of bogeys, she was making birdies and so I knew she was getting close to me. I think that also helped to push me, because I kind of know where the leading score is because it’s either her or me. That’s what I thought, at least.”
The competition between Popov and McDonald went back and forth for much of the round. Popov led by as many as four strokes at one point before bogeying the par-5 No. 16 hole.
McDonald said the players fed off the competition.
“Sophia is playing great golf and Jin Young is the No. 1 player in the world,” McDonald said. “It was a very comfortable pairing. To see somebody else playing the course really well ... you can kind of feed off each other. But it also makes you be super into it, because it’s kind of easy — if you get a little too comfortable — you can let things slip away.”
McDonald and Popov shouldn’t have to worry about that. Not as long as they’re looking up the leaderboard at Kim, who shot 5-under 65 to move to 8-under for the tournament.
“I think I feel a little bit more comfortable going into the weekend as far as my nerves go,” Popov said. “If I can drive the ball solid, then I think I have a really good chance this week. And my putter is working well, so I just have to keep giving myself a lot of chances. You’re going to roll in a few here and there, so I think it’s all about keeping your head in it.”