DEFENDING CHAMP POPSON CAN’T ESCAPE MEMORIES OF HER WINPulling into Atlanta National Golf Club, Erica Popson’s face waves in the wind on a Epson Classic banner. Park your car and walk towards the first hole and her face is on the window of the pro shop.
Even though her maiden voyage into the winner’s circle came in Charlotte, N.C. last year, she has the feeling of a defending champion this week.
“It is cool to be able to see yourself driving in, that’s pretty neat,” said Popson, who finished 12th on the money list last year. “It would have been really disappointing if the tournament didn’t exist anymore and I didn’t get to defend at all so this week is cool. At the same time, Laura (Wearn) won here last year and played awesome. It would be cool to defend in a weird way.”
Popson likes Atlanta National Golf Club and actually finished in the top 10 last year.
Popson’s win last year at the Epson Classic was a turning point in her career. She earned her LPGA card right out of college and thought life as a professional was going to be easy. However, she struggled in 2014 and 2015 and began to question her career path.
“I had two really rough years in a row and last year I started the season with not much money,” explained Popson. “I didn’t really have anyone to help me so I was thinking I’d play until my money runs out. I just kept on making cuts and then I got to Charlotte and ended up winning the tournament. I was at the point where if I didn’t have a good 2016, I was going to get into college coaching or maybe go a different route. I don’t come from a wealthy family and my parents haven’t been able to help me out.
“That was an important win at the time because I feel like I want to keep playing golf and it gave me a chance to do so,” continued Popson, who earned $22,500 for her win. “The year didn’t end the way I wanted to, but you have to take it as a positive and hopefully this year I can finish in the top 10.”
As a side note, in true Popson fashion, she went to Chipotle to celebrate her win.
Popson wound up just $1,191 short of earning a spot on the LPGA last year.
Although she won eight times in college, Popson's only true experience defending didn’t go as well as she would have hoped. She won the SEC Championship in 2011 as a sophomore and didn’t play her best in 2012 as a junior.
The good news this time around is that Popson will have a friend on the bag this week at the Epson Classic. She became close with her college coaches husband, Luis Pavon.
“He’s an awesome guy and he has more stories than anyone I have ever been around,” said Popson. “I’ve always told him that he’s got to caddy for me one of these days. Tennessee just finished SEC’s last week so I called him last night and asked.”
Knoxville is about three hours from Atlanta National Golf Club.
FIRST ALTERNATE IS GEORGIA NATIVE JESSICA WELCHNobody wants to get into the Epson Classic more than Jessica Welch of Thomasville, Georgia. She wears a GSGA (Georgia State Golf Association) hat at just about every tournament. Welch is the daughter of Tommy Welch, a longtime high school football coach in northwest Georgia. From 1992-2000, he was the coach at Armuchee and advanced to the Class A semifinals in 1993.
This week, Welch is the first alternate so if any player decides to withdraw, she will get in the tournament.
“Me and the GSGA crew are tight, I played a lot of junior golf with them,” said Welch. “The closest I ever got to winning was last year at Dunwoody at the U.S. Open qualifier when I missed it by one shot.”
Welch also played a ton of junior golf in the Atlanta area. She played the Atlanta Junior Golf Tour and the Southeastern Junior Golf Tour.
“It kind of does feel like I’m on home turf and it is definitely nice to be in my home state,” said Welch. “I have never played Atlanta National, but walking up you see rolling hills, water and bunkers and it just feels like Atlanta golf courses.
Welch went to college at Jacksonville University and says she considered Georgia State. While in college, she played in the Georgia-Florida-Alabama challenge match and received the GSGA hats.
“I like to wear it because it throws props back to that crew,” said Welch. “I’ve known them since I was nine when I fist started playing.”
Welch has made two starts as a rookie on the Epson Tour and her best finish is a tie for 33rd at the Sara Bay Classic.