For the fourth time in the last five years, the AIG Women’s Open champion was also a first-time winner on the LPGA Tour. The major that most often delivers the unexpected gave fans the unprecedented last week: for the first time since earning its major designation status in 2001, the AIG Women’s Open was decided by a playoff. Ashleigh Buhai’s four-hole, sudden-death victory over In Gee Chun capped an exciting 2022 major season, and gave South Africa its second-ever LPGA Tour major winner.
Buhai got her first LPGA title in her 221st career start, an interesting parallel to something that happened last summer in Scotland. At the 2021 Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open, it was Ryann O’Toole getting her first career LPGA Tour win, coming in her 228th start. There’s something about Scottish golf and unpredictable winners.
BUHAI’S PUTTING PROWESS
You wouldn’t know it watching her last week at Muirfield, but Ashleigh Buhai did not enter the AIG Women’s Open with a glittering stat sheet this season when it came to putting. In nine of her first 11 starts this season on the LPGA Tour, she lost strokes to the field on the greens. Heading into the season’s final major, she ranked 68th on the Tour for the season in putts per green in regulation, and outside the top-100 in three-putt avoidance.
That all dramatically changed on her way to the biggest win of her career to date. Buhai was absolutely brilliant from 5 to 10 feet away, making 20 of 26 putts from that range for the week, a clip of 76.9%. For context, the LPGA Tour make rate from that range since tracking began last season is 56.3%. Buhai gained more than seven-and-a-half strokes on the field with her putter, the third-most of any player, even with a negative strokes gained putting number in her final round.
Buhai didn’t just putt her way to victory, though. She gained strokes through the bag, putting together positive strokes gained numbers in all four measured disciplines (off the tee, approach, around the green and putting). Overall, Buhai ranked sixth among players to make the cut in strokes gained tee-to-green, with 1.89 per round. She hit more than 80% of her greens in regulation for the week, the second-highest clip of anyone in the field.
MINJEE’S MAJOR SUCCESS
By picking up her third consecutive top-five finish at the AIG Women’s Open, Minjee Lee sealed the 2022 Rolex ANNIKA Major Award. Lee was a combined 34-under-par in the majors for the year, eight shots better than any other player. In Gee Chun ranked second, at 26-under. Going back to her breakthrough win at the 2021 Amundi Evian Championship, the numbers are even more impressive: Over the last seven major championships contested, Lee is 62-under, a whopping 24 shots better than anyone else.
While Lee is the runaway leader this season in strokes gained approach – her 2.31 per round is about six-tenths of a stroke better than any other player – it was her short game that excelled at Muirfield. Lee led the field in strokes gained around the green (1.47 per round) and scrambling (15-for-19, 79%). It was another example of an increasingly balanced skill set for one of the world’s best players.
LEADER STREAK CONTINUES
It’s one of the most interesting, yet misleading, statistics in golf in 2022: For the fifth women’s major championship in a row, the 54-hole leader or co-leader went on to win. This marked the first time since 1998 that every major in a specific season was won by the 54-hole leader – Pat Hurst, Brandie Burton and Se Ri Pak (twice) converted wins that season.
So why is this statistic misleading? With leaders converting all five majors this year, one may think on the surface that players cruised to victory on Sunday. And while Lee fit that bill in her U.S. Women’s Open win at Pine Needles, the roads were a bit bumpier for our other four champions. Jennifer Kupcho’s big lead at the Chevron Championship was in peril down the stretch, In Gee Chun was two back at one point in her final round at Congressional, and Brooke Henderson trailed on Sunday at the Amundi Evian Championship. Add in Ashleigh Buhai’s extended playoff to pick up her win at Muirfield, and the roads were quite winding to victory.
SHIBUNO’S STRIPE SHOW
Three years removed from her breakthrough AIG Women’s Open win, Hinako Shibuno missed getting into the playoff Sunday by a single stroke. Shibuno was excellent virtually all week: She led the field in strokes gained tee to green, the only player to gain 10-plus shots on the field in that fashion. She was sixth among players to make the cut in strokes gained off the tee and second in strokes gained approach.
When Shibuno was accurate off the tee last week, she was unstoppable: 13 times she made birdie or better after finding the fairway with a tee shot on a par 4 or 5, three more such instances than any other player in the field. A miss was especially penalizing, however. From the fairway she hit the green in regulation 28 of 32 times, a clip of 87.5%. That number plummeted to 54.2% after missing the fairway with her tee shot.
Over her last three rounds, Shibuno made bogey or worse seven times on par 4s and 5s. On every one of those holes, she missed the fairway with her drive. Sometimes the margin between making a playoff and a third-place finish can be a single swing.