Maiden major was worth the wait for Ashleigh Buhai, South Africa’s first lady of golf
She was unstoppable as an amateur, but the pro game proved a lot tougher for South Africa’s top female golfer. At Muirfield, she walked in the footsteps of heroes Gary Player and Ernie Els, and put all demons to flight.
She teed it up, studied the ball for a few moments and swung in an effortless motion. The ball started off low, rose and soared down the 18th fairway. A lethal approach and target-seeking putt later she was the champion.
That was 14-year-old Ashleigh Simon (now Buhai) at Strand Golf Club 18 years ago when she became the youngest player in history to win the South African Women’s Amateur double.
Fast forward to 2022 and the 18th tee at Muirfield in Scotland last week.
She studied the ball for a few moments and swung in an effortless motion. The ball started off low, rose and soared down the 18th fairway.
This time her approach didn’t find the dance floor, but one of the links’ treacherous greenside bunkers. Undeterred, the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour’s No 1-ranked bunker player hit one of the finest trap shots of the tournament and left herself with a two-footer for par to lift the AIG Women’s Open title. Same swing. Same determination. Same focus and quiet confidence. But this time she overcame all mental obstacles that had held her back for 15 years.
When she closed the door on three-time major winner In Gee Chun from South Korea at their fourth play-off hole to win the title, Buhai became just the second South African woman to win a major golf championship.
She followed Sally Little, who won the LPGA Championship in 1980 and the Du Maurier Championship in 1988 – a year before Buhai was born.
Buhai ended a 10-year major title drought for South Africa. She did it at Muirfield, where her two biggest heroes, Gary Player (1959) and Ernie Els (2002), both won their first Open titles.
“Ernie was the last to win at Muirfield and, in the practice round, I found his famous bunker shot on YouTube and we practiced it,” Buhai said.
“They say things are meant to be … Ernie won in 2002, I won in 2022. It was his 41st major start, it was my 43rd. We both held a 54-hole lead. I think the stars aligned for me and things were just meant to be.”
Given her prodigious amateur career, there were many who believed Buhai was ready to be South Africa’s next golfing superstar, but the stars didn’t quite align back then.
Not only did she completely dominate the amateur circuit, she also beat the professionals, winning four titles, including the 2004 SA Women’s Open aged 14 and the SA Women’s Masters at 16.
Her pro career on the Ladies European Tour (LET) started seamlessly. She won her third event as a pro, the Catalonia Ladies Masters in 2007, becoming the European circuit’s youngest professional winner.
Unfortunately, that’s where the upward trajectory came to a screeching halt.
There was the Portugal Ladies Open win in 2011 and the SA Women’s Open victory in 2018 but, rather than taking the world by storm, Buhai seemed to be settling into a run-of-the-mill tour player. Solid and steady, but not spectacular.
She gained, lost and regained her LPGA Tour card, played in the Olympics and, for many seasons, hovered around the middle of the pack rather than at the top of the leaderboard. The usual ups and downs for a golfing professional.
Behind the scenes she was working relentlessly – searching for the missing ingredient that would push her to the next level. Not fulfilling expectations or living up to potential only added pressure.
In more than 200 LPGA starts, the closest she came to the winner’s circle was in the 2020 Cambia Portland Classic, where she got pipped by Georgia Hall in a play-off. This season, too, Buhai had been struggling more than prospering.
Arriving at Muirfield for a 15th attempt to win the Women’s Open, Buhai had played well enough to finish in the top 10 only twice in 15 LPGA Tour starts this season.
She missed seven cuts, including one a week earlier at the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open.
What has probably held Buhai back most is her length off the tee. Or rather, lack of it.
Up against big hitters on the LPGA Tour, she gives up 30m on her drives. She has one of the best short games around, but on the long LPGA layouts that is not quite enough.
On the links courses of the UK, however, where there is less premium on length and more on course management, she is more comfortable.
In 2019, she held the lead going into the final round of the Women’s Open. Last year, she tied for 11th at Carnoustie.
Coming into the 2022 edition at Muirfield, Buhai wasn’t worried that she had missed the cut in the Scottish Women’s Open. “I was striking the ball so well, and my short game was solid. I struggled with the pace of the greens, so I put some extra time in at Muirfield to get my speed right,” she said.
“I have always loved links golf because I can use all the shots in my arsenal. You can’t just boom it down the fairway. I love the way I can shape shots and put the premium on position, not distance.”
Going into the final round with a five-shot lead there was, once again, the pressure to live up to the expectation that she would succeed.
For 14 holes she was in control, but on the 15th a poor tee shot came to rest in a deep bunker and she was dead. A triple bogey and the lead was gone.
“As hard as it was after that triple on 15, I just tried to stay in the moment,” she said. “I made one bad swing, which was the tee shot that found the bunker.
“If I had half a lie, I would have been able to play out to the fairway and walk off with a bogey. But I was tied for the lead with three holes to play and it wasn’t over. I wrote it off to bad luck, dug deep and gave myself every chance to force a play-off.
“My thought this week was 40% to the top because that kept my rhythm and then everything else falls into place. I started seeing Duncan McCarthy, Erik van Rooyen’s sport psychologist, a few months back, and it’s something we’ve worked hard on.
“As long as I had soft hands and 40% to the top, then I felt I was in control.”
On Sunday, she played the challenging 18th five times. Each time, very well.
“I hit that fairway every day because I fade the ball with the wind off the right. I call it my little punch shot, put the ball back in my stance and I just hit it low.”
And the bunker shot to pull off the win was the ultimate test.
The reality is that, had she lost, the scars would have been deep. But, under the most intense pressure, she delivered.
The prize money was welcome (R18.2-million), as was her ascension to top 30 in the world, but her greatest victory is the personal validation that she has delivered on her potential. Who knows what this will lead to in the future? DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.