Popovic perseveres through father's cancer
They will tell you that the world’s greatest golfers are assembled in Pittsford, N.Y., for the 95th PGA Championship – and that is true. But that’s not to suggest that the best stories are all here at Oak Hill Country Club.
Fact is, they aren’t. Some are headed back to Australia.
But here is the appeal to Daniel Popovic; he is headed home both with open arms and a greater perspective of who he is and what sort of line of work he has taken on. The way things unfolded at last week’s Bridgestone Invitational? It proved that his world ranking – No. 451 – doesn’t lie. But the way he handled it? It demonstrated that his character is world-class.
“I’ve been counting down the days,” the 27-year-old Aussie said of his trip home. Having been trying to forge a European PGA Tour career, then coming to the U.S. for the Bridgestone, Popovic hasn’t been in Australia for four months and there is much to go home for.
Most of all, his father.
“My dad’s my hero, like every other kid’s dad, and we’ve become a lot closer the last year or two where he’s been sick. It’s good with Skype now. You get to see him, but it’s not the same.”
Radi Popovic has bone marrow cancer, and though the disease is insidious, their perspective isn’t. “He’s been here for a lot longer than what everybody else has expected,” Daniel said.
The best part of the father-son embrace? It will totally trump those rounds of 79-77-76-82 that left Popovic in last place, 34 over and 49 strokes behind Tiger Woods at the season’s third World Golf Championship.
Surely, his dad is proud of him, no?
Popovic smiled. “He’s probably not proud of my performance (at the Bridgestone), but I think he’s proud of me being here and where I’ve taken my career to now.”
Being the competitor that he is, Popovic had a tough time swallowing the scores, but “when I see (my father) I’ll forget about this tournament straight away and everything will be fine.”
Boo Weekley and Geoff Ogilvy seem sure that everything will be fine with the young man’s golf, also. The Bridgestone result is already forgotten by them, too.
“It’s got to be overwhelming,” Weekley said. “It’s only his second year out here (as a pro), and to get thrown onto (Firestone CC).”
Years before Popovic made the trek, Ogilvy came to the United States to chase pro golf and can appreciate how the young man must have been taken aback by the difference in courses to those Down Under. “He’s never played any setup like that,” Ogilvy said of Firestone, with its narrow fairways and punishing rough. “If he had played Hilton Head, he would have been better off, because it’s more like Australia.”
“That’s got to be an overwhelming course for first-timers, or actually anybody,” Ogilvy said.
Popovic had earned his way into the field by virtue of his money standing on the Australasia Tour, a lofty position that was helped immeasurably by a stunning win in the Australian PGA Championship last November. It was at that championship where Ogilvy met Popovic for the first time, their practice round arranged by another competitor, Ryan Lynch, whose dad, Dale, is Ogilvy’s longtime coach.
During that practice round, “he was like a sponge, asking questions all day, just loving it,” Ogilvy said of Popovic. Then, as fate would have it, in Round 3 they were paired again, only this time there were no questions, only some lessons learned. Popovic was in the midst of a 64-70-69-69 performance that made headlines Down Under.
“Incredible, a shocker,” Ogilvy said. “I had never heard of him. He wasn’t on anyone’s radar. But he won it in style. He wasn’t just hanging on for dear life. He just played better.”
Leaving Rod Pampling in second, Popovic was the toast of golf circles in Australia. Just one year earlier he had worked as a flagman on roadways, and along the way he had been a pizza-maker, his specialty reputed to have been the toppings. Always, he loved golf. But always, he reserved doubts.
“There were a couple of injuries, but my golf wasn’t up to the level, I didn’t think, to turn pro, to compete,” Popovic said. Then he thought it was best to stay home and help take care of his father.
When he did turn pro, he wrestled with an understandable quandary: the financial wherewithal to travel and compete. Finally, he made the plunge, but it hasn’t been easy.
“I had a rough year last year,” Popovic conceded, though his fortunes took a stunning turn for the better at the Aussie PGA. That encouraged him to make a choice: try the European PGA Tour or the Web.com Tour in the U.S.; he chose the former. Though he mostly has been relegated to the sidelines (two missed cuts and a T-58, at the Trophee Hassan), Popovic has too firm a grip on perspective to waste time with regrets.
It is that spirit that Ogilvy has quickly come to admire in his fellow Aussie.
When Popovic, having traveled to Los Angeles, from out of the blue texted Ogilvy several weeks ago and wanted to know if they could hook up for some golf, it galvanized a friendship of sorts.
They played a round in San Diego, and then Ogilvy made arrangements for Popovic to get access to a course where he could play and practice.
“He was prepping for Akron,” Ogilvy said, “and he would call me every single morning. Let’s go chip. Let’s go play. It’s enthusiasm you don’t see very often in a grown-up, which is great. It was good for me to have someone with enthusiasm, because we get jaded after a while, don’t we?
“He was pumped on golf, pumped on everything.”
Weekley, who drew Popovic as a playing competitor for two days at Firestone, sensed that same emotion, and loved it every bit as much as Ogilvy did.
“He’s just one of those guys you seem to know you can get along with,” said Weekley, who invited Popovic to dinner Thursday and Friday nights. “Then again, I haven’t met too many Australians you can’t get along with.”
Though they may seem to have little in common, Weekley connected to one aspect of Popovic's: trying to fit into a big, cold, pro golf landscape when you’re a young and inexperienced player.
“I can relate a little bit, yeah,” Weekley said. “It’s not easy.”
Though the golf didn’t get any easier, the comfort level in the Firestone CC surroundings did, and by Sunday, Popovic realized a week-long goal: He met another Aussie, Adam Scott. Popovic had resisted the temptation to approach Scott earlier in the week (“I felt a little bit awkward, at a tournament. I didn’t want to get into his shoes.”), but finally on the last day they met. The Masters flag that Popovic had bought was signed, and he realized that what Ogilvy said was true: “If they were all like Adam, the world would be a good place and the Tour would be a lot of fun.”
A fitting cap to the young man’s week.
“It was an amazing experience, one I will remember for the rest of my life,” Popovic said. “The golf wasn’t great, but I just enjoyed myself, to be honest with you. I was just taking it for what it was.”
In Australia, he’ll reunite with his father, take some time off, then get back into a practice routine in preparation for what he hopes will be a busy fall season. He knows he’s got spots in the Dunhill Links in late September and the HSBC Champions in early November, and prospects are promising for a few other starts.