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SA’s Buhai ready to defend British Open title at Walton Heath after a ‘whirlwind’ year

SA’s Buhai ready to defend British Open title at Walton Heath after a ‘whirlwind’ year
Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa speaks during a press conference prior to the AIG Women's Open at Walton Heath Golf Club on 8 August 2023 in Tadworth, England. (Photo: Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai will defend her Women’s Open title at Walton Heath this week after she famously claimed the 2022 title in a four-hole play-off against Gee Chun at Muirfield on Scotland’s East Lothian coast.

In the gloaming at Muirfield in 2022, Ashleigh Buhai fulfilled a lifelong ambition by not only winning on the LPGA Tour, but also winning a major. It required a bunker shot for the ages on Muirfield’s famed 18th green, where Ernie Els (2002) and Gary Player (1959) also won majors, to get the job done.

Buhai’s brilliant bunker shot changed her life and the trajectory of her career. From an almost unbeatable amateur in South Africa, she nearly lost her way as a professional. But the 2022 Open title validated what she, her family and the wider golfing world always knew, but occasionally lost sight of – that she is a rare talent.

The 2022 Open title lifted a weight off her shoulders. In the 12 months since winning at Muirfield, Buhai has won the 2022 Women’s Australian Open on the WPGA Tour of Australasia and the 2023 Investec South African Women’s Open on the Ladies European Tour (LET).

She also has grabbed another win on the LPGA Tour, taking home the ShopRite LPGA Classic title earlier this season, winning by one shot over Hyo Joo Kim.

“It’s fantastic to be back. It’s just been a whirlwind of a year, all the memories come flooding back from this past year and I’m truly honoured to be back as defending champion,” Buhai said at her pre-tournament media conference this week.

“What happened last year has given me the confidence to believe that I can win if I’m playing well, and that’s proven over the last year what I’ve been able to do. Since obviously it’s very difficult to defend, there’s a lot of pressure but I’m trying not to put pressure on myself.”

Last year’s Open win was the first by a South African woman since Sally Little won the LPGA Championship in 1980 and the Du Maurier Championship in 1988 – a year before Buhai was born.

Buhai’s 2022 Open victory also ended a 10-year major title drought for South Africa.

Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa poses with the AIG Women’s Open trophy on the 18th green after winning the play-off to become the 2022 AIG Women’s Open champion at Muirfield on 7 August 2022 in Gullane, Scotland. (Photo: Octavio Passos / Getty Images)

Good numbers

Walton Heath is a heathlands layout and not a links course, and is closer to the type of course players encounter on the LPGA Tour week in and out. But it is not a parklands course either, as it has fewer trees and is more open and therefore slightly more susceptible to the elements.

“I played the back nine (in practice) when I first arrived,” Buhai said. “It’s very demanding off the tee. The fairways are generous, but if you do miss them, obviously you’re in the heather.

“I don’t know what those little purple flowers are for, but you don’t want to be in those. I said to my coach, ‘If you’re a weekly member here and you don’t hit it straight, I think you lose a lot of golf balls’.

“So it’s going to be demanding. It played quite long yesterday. I hit some seven-woods in. The greens are a lot bigger than I thought though.

“We could have a lot of pin placements, and especially if they are at the back, you’ve got to just make sure that you are diligent and hit it into the right spots on the greens.”

Buhai’s stats in the elite women’s tour are impressive this season, which suggests she could make a strong defence of her title.

According to the LPGA’s stats, Buhai, who is 17th on the official World Golf Rankings, has five additional top-10 finishes on her 2023 CV.

Buhai ranks second in sub-par holes (215), second in birdies (212), third in putts per green in regulation (1.75) and ninth in rounds under par (29). The South African is also 11th in driving accuracy (82.15%) and 12th in putting average (29.15).

“My coach in South Africa made a few little touches yesterday,” Buhai said. “The good thing is because we have been working together so long, nothing is ever major.

“I just kind of need a feel and once I have that feel, I’ve been going. I’m hoping that we found it yesterday. If I can take that feel into the week, then hopefully I will be able to compete.

“I’m trying to just enjoy being back here, being defending champion, and once I get out there on Thursday, not think about the outcome and just try and control what I can in my golf swing once I’m out on the course.” DM

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