Ernie Els is a 19-time PGA TOUR winner and former World No. 1, just a few accomplishments by “The Big Easy” that led to his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame (2011). Ashleigh Buhai is still hunting for her first LPGA Tour title but the 2016 Olympian recently took some cash off her fellow South African.
Buhai and her husband, David, have not been back to their native country since last summer because of the coronavirus pandemic. During the offseason, they found a place in Palm Beach Gardens to call their home base in the United States and establish a more concrete schedule around their travel. It’s an area loaded with South Africans including Els, Erik van Rooyen and Branden Grace, who won the Puerto Rico Open last week on the PGA TOUR.
“I’ve managed to play with a lot of them and all the guys,” said Buhai, who is tied for eighth at 4-under overall in the LPGA Drive On Championship presented by Volvik at Golden Ocala after a third-round 72. “Our first round out was fun. I played with Ernie and Branden [at Turtle Creek Club] and had nine birdies around. They were pretty impressed with that. I hadn’t touched a club in four weeks.”
Even with a little rust, Buhai managed to collect $50. It helped her prepare for the 2021 LPGA season. She collected a tied for eighth finish at Gainbridge LPGA and is in position to improve on that this week with 18 holes remaining at Golden Ocala Golf & Equestrian Club.
“It’s just game time, playing with good players. When you’re playing with him [Els], obviously we all wanted to win a game, even if it’s for 20 bucks,” Buhai said. “I think it was good preparation for me to have that competition and playing with some great players coming into the year.”
Growing up, Buhai had a life-size poster of Els in her bedroom. She first met her childhood idol at the 1997 South Africa Open, which was contested at Glendower Golf Club just five minutes from Buhai’s family home. He signed the poster. Since then, their paths have crossed at various points over the years but now they’re playing casual golf and one day soon, Els might be the one asking for an autograph.
“Ernie is just so smooth and still amazing how good he hits it at 51 years old,” said Buhai, a three-time Ladies South African Open winner. “With the grain in Florida, I'm normally a really good chipper of the ball but it's something I've always struggled with here. I watched him closely and asked him a few tips, and obviously he's really renowned for his bunker play, so I think playing with him and seeing how he chips on the grain has really helped me.”