Ashleigh Buhai on course to add to South African success at Muirfield

Gary Player and Ernie Els both produced some Muirfield magic to become Open champions at the East Lothian venue in 1959 and 2002 respectively.

Ashleigh Buhai tees off at the first in the third round of the AIG Women's Open at Muirfield. Picture: Octavio Passos/Getty Images.
Ashleigh Buhai tees off at the first in the third round of the AIG Women's Open at Muirfield. Picture: Octavio Passos/Getty Images.

Though still with some work to do, Ashleigh Buhai is on course to add to South African success at the home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers.

After a brilliant course-record seven-under-par 64 that was set up by a burst of five birdies in the first seven holes, the 33-year-old from Johannesburg leads the historic AIG Women’s Open by a commanding five shots on 14-under-par.

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It’s Buhai’s title to lose, but, at the same time, she is heading into uncharted territory. In 42 previous major appearances, she’s recorded just one top-10 finish. That was in this event in 2019 at Woburn, where she led by three shots at the halfway stage before ending up in fifth spot.

Swede Madelene Sagstrom enjoys a light-hearted moment at Muirfield. Picture: Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images.

The most recent of her three Ladies European Tour title triumphs came on home soil in the 2018 South African Women’s Open, but the world No 84 failed to finish the job off on the only occasion she’s been out in front after 54 holes.

Having said that, history is in her favour. Since this event became a major, the nine players who have led by three shots or more at this stage have gone on to claim the significant spoils.

“Yeah, obviously I’m very pleased to be able to shoot that score in those conditions,” said Buhai, who missed the cut in last week’s Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open at Dundonald Links and has just two top-10 finishes on the LPGA Tour this season.

“You have to pat yourself on the back, so much so that I thought I was six-under, not seven-under, and, having been eight-under playing the last, I think I have to look back at it as probably one of the best rounds of golf I’ve ever played.

In Gee Chun lines up a putt on the fifth hole at Muirfield. Picture: Octavio Passos/Getty Images.

“When we played at Woburn a few years ago I shot 64 or 65, but I think what I am most proud of is the way I stayed focused as that’s all I can control.”

One off the lead at the start of the day, Buhai followed a birdie at the second by duffing her approach at the next hole before then reeling off four birdies in a row from the fourth to be out in 31.

She started for home by making another gain at the par-4 tenth before producing one of the best shots of the day by sending a fairway wood to 12 feet into the teeth of a gusting wind at the 14th and rolling that in.

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It didn’t look as though she would take advantage of the par-5 17th playing straight down wind after sending her third shot through the back but a dinked chip was duly dispatched into the hole.

Louise Duncan walks off the first tee in the third round of the AIG Women's Open. Picture: Octavio Passos/Getty Images.

A poor approach led to a closing bogey - even then she almost holed another chip - but it was still a great afternoon’s work, especially when you take into account her playing partner Inbee Park describing the test on the back nine as “monstrous”.

The leader concurred. “I think only had 155 metres but I had to hit 5-wood as by that time the wind was gusting up to 30kph - we were playing a three-club wind!” said Buhai of that shot at the 14th.

On her position, she added: “You can never be comfortable in a major, whether you are comfortable or leading. It’s going to be another tough day. The wind is going to blow, which is good. I prefer it that way. They say big leads are often more difficult. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

She’s done well in this neck of the woods in the past, finishing fifth in the 2011 Ladies Scottish Open at Archerfield Links before ending up in the top 20 in the same event at Gullane in 2018. “It’s something about Scotland, to be honest,” she declared. “I just love it and this is my favourite tournament of the year. I love links golf as I can be creative.”

Her closest challengers are Japan’s Hinako Shibuno, who went on to win that 2019 event, after she signed for a 66, with three-time major winner In Gee Chun of Korea also on nine-under following her 70.

Charley Hull, who has never hidden her dislike for links golf, carded a 69 that contained three birdies in five holes on the front nine then an eagle at the 17th. Though still some distance behind on three-under, she’s not yet thrown in the towel.

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“Anything can happen,” said the English player, looking ahead to the final round. “Never forget the first professional event I won. I was 17 and I shot nine-under in the final round to get into the play-off and I won, so you never know.”

Louise Duncan, who made it through to the weekend in this event for the second year running but as a professional on this occasion, suffered a frustrating day after receiving a rousing reception on the first tee.

The 22-year-old didn’t hole a putt of any note, took a sore 6 at the ninth after being in perfect position after two shots and didn’t make a birdie. As a result, she signed for a 74 to slip just outside the top 40 on one-over-par.

Lindsey Garden, one of the 20 women members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, teed up alongside Lydia Hall of Wales in the third round after 65 players made the cut.

“I played okay,” reported the former Scottish internationalist afterwards. “I didn't embarrass myself off the first tee, almost got on the green at the first, three-putted as usual.”

She was disappointed that a great birdie opportunity wasn’t converted at the second hole but added of the experience: “It was good. Putting could have been better, but I struck the ball nicely.”

Garden, who hails from Tain but now lives in Edinburgh, had known for some time that she could be called upon in the historic first women’s professional event at the East Lothian venue.

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“A few weeks,” she said to being asked how long she’d been lined up for the role. “There was some chat that if there was an odd number, so it wasn't totally unexpected.”

Had she been nervous? “Very,” she admitted. “If I topped it off the first tee, I would have swapped you for anything,” she added, smiling, “but it went off okay, so thereafter it was fine.

Garden, who will be back out in the first group on Sunday and will have fellow Scot Gemma Dryburgh for company on that occasion.

Having made the cut in this event for the first time after opening rounds of 74-69, the 29-year-old undid that good work by finishing her third circuit with five straight bogeys, leaving her signing for a 77.

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