WOBURN - Like a piece of pastry at the end of a perfect meal, the final major of the LPGA season is satisfying every appetite. Almost as if saving the best for last, the AIG Women’s British Open served up a sumptuous selection of major champions, rising stars, compelling personalities and local heroes for the weekend, with some checking off all of those boxes.
When the sun set on a second consecutive day of brilliant play at Woburn Golf Club, which was once again bathed by perfect playing conditions, Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa held the top spot at 12-under par 132, three strokes ahead of Hinako Shibuno, a 20-year-old rookie on the Japan LPGA and four better than Lizette Salas, whose all-American backstory is right out of Hollywood.
The leaderboard is a roll call of greatness, showcasing the depth and breadth of talent in women’s golf as the flags of nine different countries were among the top-13 names and 11 major champions were within striking distance of the lead.
Of all the stories, the biggest surprises are the top two. Buhai, winless since she joined the LPGA in 2008 as a teen sensation, has flirted with leads but not held onto them, although she has two victories on the Ladies European Tour. A win here could jumpstart a career of which much was expected.
“My goal going out today was to get it to double figures, 10-under or better,” she said, sounding like anything but intimidated by being in contention at a major. “Once I got it to 8, 9 and 10 (-under), I felt more comfortable and was able to put my foot down.”
How will she handle the pressure of the weekend?
“I'm feeling good,” Buhai said. “I'm trying not to keep thinking it's a major; it's just another tournament. I think it helps that the conditions have just been so good and we haven't had to deal with too many elements.”
While Shibuno has won twice on the JLPGA this year, including a major, she’s never been on a stage this large as she tries to make history in her homeland. Chako Higuchi at the 1977 Women’s PGA Championship is the only Japanese to win a major.
“I just wanted to make the cut,” said Shibuno, who’s nickname is Smile Cinderella because she smiles all the time.
Of the top eight going into Saturday’s third round, only Sung Hyun Park, who’s at 137 with Bronte Law, Celine Boutier, Charley Hull and Caroline Masson, has won a major. But looming large right behind them are a slew of major winners.
Defending champion Georgia Hall, Ariya Jutanugarn, who won the British Open at Woburn in 2016, two-time major winner this year Jin Young Ko and Danielle Kang, who won the 2017 KPMG Women’s PGA, are at 138 along with Carlota Ciganda.
Jeongeun Lee6, winner of the U.S. Women’s Open in May, is at 139 with Nelly Korda, Marina Alex and Minjee Lee. Major winners Brooke Henderson, Morgan Pressel and In-Kyung Kim are at 140 with Pavarise Yoktuan.
Salas, the California-born daughter of Mexican immigrants, learned the game because her father, Ramon, bartered his skills as a mechanic for lessons. She was a four-time All-American at the University of Southern California and is one of the faces of the LPGA’s Drive On campaign, her story highlighting the stereotypes she escaped to become a professional golfer.
“It was super fun,” said Salas, who began her round with four consecutive birdies. “I had a solid warm-up and played well last week at Evian, so a lot of positive momentum and got off to a really hot start. I was just in the zone."
At No. 5 on the points list, Salas is a lock for the Solheim Cup, one of her goals. “You don’t how much it means for two Mexican immigrants to see their daughter represent the United States,” her mother, Martha, said in Des Moines when her daughter was wrapped in the American flag after the U.S. defeated Europe in the last Solheim Cup.
“It's a highlight of my career and it's an addictive feeling to put on the red, white and blue and represent your country,” Salas said. “This will be my fourth, but it never gets old. Really looking forward to it.”
The home fans in this sleepy community just a short train ride from London turned out in large numbers for the second round and were not disappointed. Law, Hull and Hall are all English and are all in the top 10 going to the weekend.
Law, who plays with a passion that oozes from every pore, picked up her first LPGA win earlier this year at the Pure Silk Championship after being bested in a playoff at the Mediheal Championship by Sei Young Kim’s birdie on the first extra hole.
“Winning majors is why we play this game,” Law said. “And obviously this is my first opportunity to set me towards that path. Today, I holed some really good putts. Honestly, that's the key, really, making those putts when you need to.”
The massive galleries carried Hall, who shot a second consecutive 69, along.
“Loved it,” she said. “Weather was really good and not much wind. Again, massive crowds. It's awesome to be at home playing in England and having those people come out and support me.”
And Hull, whose home course is Woburn, rebounded from consecutive bogeys on the back nine to play the last four holes two under par and shoot 70.
“After making two bogeys, I said to myself, trust myself, and made birdies on the back of them bogeys, so I was feeling good,” Hull said.
Weekends at major championships are the final exams of golf. All the ingredients are there for a tasty finish. Now we just need to ice the cake.