Winning is never easy. Winning majors is tougher by an order of magnitude. Making a major your first win? Well, that pressure is almost impossible to describe.
You could feel it from four thousand miles away. When winless 33-year-old South African Ashleigh Buhai tugged a tee shot into the bunker at the difficult par-4 15th at Muirfield, you sensed drama on the horizon, even though Buhai, who started the final round of this AIG Women’s Open with a five-shot lead, still led by three shots with four holes to play. That margin evaporated in 10 minutes. Buhai clipped her pitch out of the cavernous hazard too clean, carrying the ball into the thick rough. Still more than 200 yards away, she attempted to wedge it out from there. But as often happens in the long, tan fescue of Scotland, grass grabbed the shaft and turned the face over. Buhai left the ball in the rough. She made triple-bogey 7. Just like that, the 14-year veteran who has battled illness and injury throughout her career, found herself tied for the lead with In Gee Chun at 10-under par.
That’s how regulation ended. Neither player was able to birdie the par-5 17th, but both made pars on the difficult par-4 18th.
Then came the seemingly endless playoff, 18 over, and over, and over, and over again until Buhai hit an extraordinary bunker shot in the dark, a blast that nestled down to 3 feet for par. After Chun found a fairway bunker and made bogey, the stage was clear for Buhai to roll in a short one for a life-changing victory.
It should be noted that Buhai is inside the top 40 on the LPGA Tour in only one statistical category – sand saves, where she is No. 1.
“I was surprisingly calm,” she said of her demeanor throughout the final round. “I kept going through my thoughts and my process. On the last (hole) my caddie (Tanya Paterson) said, ‘Show them why you’re number one in bunkers this year.’”
She did just that, also showing the world the grit that many who know her have seen for more than a decade.
For years there was a sense of underachievement with Buhai (nee Ashleigh Simon). As a teenaged amateur, she won four professional events in South Africa. People spoke of her the way they would speak of Lydia Ko almost a decade later. But Buhai underwent hip surgery early in her professional career, which set her back. On the heels of that came a bout with vertigo, which can be career ending for athletes. But Buhai never gave up. Through 220 starts on the LPGA Tour, she battled to one career runner-up finish. This was only her second time in the final pairing in a major.
The six hours she spent battling the wind and cold on Sunday was the perfect metaphor for her entire career. She never quit. She never looked overwhelmed. She put one foot in front of the next and focused on the mission.
There is an expression in military training that goes “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” That was Buhai’s swing thought all week. She focused on taking the club back at 40% of her normal speed. The result was a week-long ball-striking clinic. She hit 15 of 18 greens on Sunday and missed only 13 greens in 72 holes, an exemplary number given the shifting conditions and gusting winds.
Twenty years ago last month, another South African, Ernie Els, blew a final-round lead, made gutsy par on the final hole of regulation, and then went five playoff holes before capturing the Open Championship. Buhai and Chun’s playoff was only four. But it was lost on no one that growing up Buhai had a life-sized poster of Els in her room. They have gotten to know each other over the years and Buhai went to YouTube early in the week to see the bunker shots Els hit on Sunday to win in 2002, including one from the bunker on the opposite side of the 18th green from where Ashleigh hit the shot of her career.
If destiny plays a role in anything in golf, this one seemed almost scripted.
Historians will also note that Muirfield remains undefeated. The links crafted by Old Tom Morris on an arrowhead-shaped peninsula in the Firth of Forth never disappoints. Just look back through the years. Phil Mickelson’s comeback 66 to make up five shots and win the 2013 Open Championship by three; Els surviving a four-person playoff in 2002; Nick Faldo twice, first in 1987 over Paul Azinger who pulled a tee shot on 18 into a bunker, and again in 1992 when he hung on after letting a four-shot lead slip away. Even way, way back when Harry Vardon beat J.H. Taylor in a 36-hole playoff in 1896, the venue has consistently delivered.
Even in the women’s game, Muirfield has been a star. In the 1952 Curtis Cup, American Grace DeMoss had a meltdown of her own on the 15th, hitting one cold shank after the next and losing what turned out to be the deciding match to GB&I’s Elizabeth Price.
The Americans got their revenge in East Lothian in 1984 when a Curtis Cup team featuring Heather Farr among others won 9½ to 8½.
But you can only be the first to do something once. And the first woman to win a major championship at Muirfield will forever be the quiet South African who battled injury, illness and doubt, and never gave up. Ashleigh Buhai is your 2012 AIG Women’s Open Champion.