Ashleigh Buhai adds to South African success at Muirfield after winning AIG Women's Open in play-off
History repeated itself at Muirfield. Twenty years after Ernie Els came out on top in a play-off to win The Open, fellow South African Ashleigh Buhai emulated the feat in the AIG Women’s Open.
The 33-year-old was cruising to a maiden major victory before running up a triple-bogey 7 at the 15th hole and eventually finishing locked together with Korea’s In Gee Chun after 72 holes in the event’s first staging at the East Lothian venue.
Unlike Els in 2020, this play-off was sudden-death, but it took four holes to determine a winner, with Buhai producing a magnificent up and down from a bunker that looks like a doughnut on the right of the 18th green to claim victory in the fading light around 9.10pm.
As she pulled down her cap to cover her face, Buhai was engulfed by a huge hug from her husband, David, as he ran on to the green, where the new champion was also showered in beer by some fellow players and friends.
It was the third success for a South African in a major at the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, with Gary Player also having been crowned as Open champion there in 1959 and he’d texted Buhai over the weekend to urge her on in this title quest.
“It is a huge honour,” she admitted of following in the footsteps of her compatriots. “They were two of my idols growing up and I am very proud to be South African right now.”
The Johannesburg woman the is the first South African to win this event since it earned major status - Alison Sheard landed the title before then - and just the county’s second major winner after Sally Little, the 1980 KPMG Women’s PGA champion 1988 du Maurier Classic winner. “I’m overwhelmed, to be honest. It is a dream come true,” she added of claiming this prize, worth $1.095 million, in her 15th appearance in the event.
Referring to what happened at the 15th, Buhai admitted: “It would have been easy to panic and come home in an ambulance, but I am very happy how I managed the situation.”
In the first play-off since the event became a major in 2001 and first since 1990, three-time major winner Chun got up and down from a bunker on the first trip up 18, holed a six-footer for a bogey to keep it alive second-time around before Buhai’s 20-foot birdie attempt just died left at the hole on the third attempt to separate the pair.
Chun’s drive at the fourth extra hole didn’t turn over from right to left, leaving her having to splash out from a bunker and finding the back edge with the next one. That opened the door for Buhai but, after pushing her approach, it took a fabulous recovery from the sand to finally get a winner. “It was a grind,” said Buhai of tackling the tough closing hole over and over again.
Buhai started out with a five-shot lead but, having only recorded one top-10 finish in 42 previous appearances in majors, this was always going to be a monumental test of her nerve and character.
In the strongest wind of the week, she negotiated the opening hole without any hiccups but a pushed approach led to a bogey at the second and, all of a sudden, her cushion had been cut to just three shots.
In the group in front, Chun almost holed her second at the same hole then rolled in a 30-footer with a three-foot break in it at the fourth - the first of a brilliant collection of par-3s on this layout.
It was just the boost Buhai badly needed when she splashed out of a greenside bunker to four feet and rolled it in for a first birdie of the day, though she then gave that shot back after finding sand off the tee and taking 6 at the ninth.
But, helped by Chun starting for home with two bogeys in three holes and her own run on that stretch beginning with five solid pars, Buhai looked to be coasting to victory until disaster struck at the 15th.
Her tee shot ended up close to the face in the middle one of three fairway bunkers on the left. Playing out sideways, it came out hot into a heavy clump of rough, from where she could only advance it 20 yards.
Though this one was sitting up in the rough, it came up short and a resultant triple-bogey 7 meant her lead had been blown in one fell swoop.
Chun, who’d agonisingly seen a 30-foot birdie attempt die at the mouth of the hole at the par-3 16th, missed from six feet for a birdie at the 17th before Buhai, having played a lovely bunker shot with her third, did likewise.
With her nervous-looking husband David - he’d been caddying for Korean Jeongeun Lee6 a few matches ahead - watching in the crowd, Buhai saved par from three feet at the last and celebrated with a fist pump.
She closed with a 75 - 11 shots more than her course-record score on Saturday - while Chun had been round 70 as they finished locked together on a 10-under-par 274 total as Muirfield provided the solid test that had been predicted.
Japan’s Hinako Shibuno, the 2019 winner, finished third on nine-under, two ahead of Australian Minjee Lee, Swede Madelene Sagstrom and Leona Maguire from Ireland. Maguire produced the best last-day effort with a brilliant bogey-free five-under 66 - one shot better than Celine Boutier after the French player finished birdie-birdie.
“I think these conditions were possibly the toughest of the four days as it was windy from the get-go,” said Maguire, the star of Europe’s Solheim Cup success last year. “That was kind of the potential I knew was in there all week, and nice to sort of finish it off today.”
She completed the event without straying into a single fairway bunker, the penalty for which here is almost certainly a splash out. “Drove it as well as I've probably driven it in a while,” added Maguire. “Yeah, if I had had my week on the greens, things could have been a lot different.”
Maguire claimed the Smyth Salver, the prize for the leading amateur, in 2016. That went to American Rose Zhang on this occasion, the world No 1 being the only amateur out of eight starters to make the cut and ending up in the top 30 on one-over.
“I feel like I have so many options that I can go either way,” she said of her future plans. “But I think for now, I’m going to go back (to Stanford) for my sophomore year and just enjoy another great year with my team-mates.”
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