Ashleigh Buhai carded a brilliant seven under par to seize control of the AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield after three rounds.
Few may have predicted her charge but, with a five shot lead, even the biggest doubter would be hard pressed to look past the South African 33-year-old claiming the title on Sunday.
Much of the build-up this week had been surrounding Muirfield’s difficult relationship with female golfers – let alone professionals – having only admitted its first female members having voted to allow female membership in 2017. The idea of a Women’s Open at Muirfield would have been considered alien back in 2002 when Buhai’s compatriot Ernie Els lifted the Claret Jug for the first time.
This week Buhai spoke of watching Els’s famous 13th-hole, final-day bunker shot on YouTube as inspiration. She did not need that on Saturday, as she birdied four of the opening six holes and created her own moment of magic to chip into the hole of the par five 17th for a birdie. The only flaw in her round was a bogey on the final hole.
Looking at her record in majors, some could write off Buhai as something of a journeywoman – her best result coming three years ago at the same event at Woburn when she was tied for fifth place. She has never had a top-10 in the other four women’s majors. Despite having an LPGA card since 2014, she has never won on the Tour, although she has won three times on the Ladies’ European Tour.
But there is a fascinating story beneath that, and she is renowned for having one of the smoothest and most rhythmic swings on the LPGA. She was something of a prodigy growing up in Johannesburg, dominating the amateur ranks before turning professional on her 18th birthday.
One unique aspect of Buhai’s story is that her husband David – who she met at a golf academy as teenager – and was a talented young golfer and became her caddy. He even proposed to her after the Dubai Ladies Classic in 2015. However, once the pair tied the knot in 2016, David went onto caddying for others.
Considering the comparatively historically low earnings in the women’s game – it also made financial sense for the pair to separate professionally. David is on the bag this week for South Korean Jeongeun Lee6, the 2019 Women’s US Open champion, who many had predicted to be closer to the top of the leaderboard.
And if Buhai were to hold her never to claim this first major, she would earn $1,095 million (£829,100) – that is almost five times her earnings last year. Given Els picked up a check for £700,000 – granted there has been inflation in the past two decades – it would be a truly historic win on this most groundbreaking of wins.
Meanwhile it has been a disappointing Championship for the British challenge, with Charley Hull and Mel Reid the highest ranked with both tied for 15th place at three under. Louise Duncan slipped back to tied for 41st after a round of three over, on Saturday, leaving her at plus one for the tournament.