Tennessee's Popson holds off Liu at Harder Hall

Tennessee senior Erica Popson

Tennessee senior Erica Popson

SEBRING, Fla. – Erica Popson was bigger and stronger and much older than her closest competitors at the Harder Hall Invitational. But if there’s one thing followers of the women’s game know, it’s that none of that really matters.

Mika Liu, the 13-year-old playing in the final group alongside Popson, an All-American at Tennessee, drained a lengthy birdie putt on the 72nd hole at Harder Hall Golf Club with absolutely no idea what it meant.

Popson, 21, needed to make an 8-foot birdie putt to avoid a playoff against an eighth-grader. She knew exactly where she stood against Liu and delivered.

“This is my first amateur title,” said Popson, a senior. “First and last.”

Popson, of nearby Davenport, Fla., heads back to school for one last semester. She plans to turn professional after the NCAA Championship. This is only her second appearance at the Harder Hall, a tournament rich in history and prone to bad weather. The temperature hovered around 80 on Sunday.

Popson headed into the final round in Sebring two strokes behind Liu. When Liu bogeyed the 11th hole, Popson birdied to take a one-shot lead. She expanded her lead to two with another birdie, on the par-4 13th. A couple of short misses coming down the stretch could’ve been costly for Popson, but she avenged any errors with a clutch birdie on the final hole to win by one stroke.

A five-time winner at Tennessee and 2012 Curtis Cup participant, Popson has struggled on the greens of late. Less than two weeks ago, she got a new mallet-style putter and put her standard blade in the trunk of the car. She brought it to Sebring each day on her 80-minute drive from Davenport, just in case things went south. Popson had won all of her college events with the blade but said she made the right choice this week.

“It definitely showed some spark the last hole,” she said.

Popson’s left arm looks like an art project, with can’t-miss black tape down her wrist and over her thumb. She had thumb surgery during last year’s offseason and said she likely will tape it up for the rest of her career.

As for the brace-faced Liu, the soft-spoken middle-schooler who hung tight with the big girls, she’s looking to follow in the footsteps of her older siblings, brother Seiji and sister Marika, who play college golf for Harvard and Yale, respectively.

Liu, however, isn’t limiting her sights to the Ivy League.

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