What a leaderboard. With wind this weekend expected to blow upwards of 30 mph and the fairways and greens at Muirfield not getting any softer, AIG and the R&A couldn’t have set up the stage for a more dramatic AIG Women’s Open if they’d scripted the week in advance.
At one point on Friday you had six players tied atop the leaderboard, including LPGA Hall-of-Famer Inbee Park, fan favorite Jessica Korda, the “Smiling Cinderella” and 2019 AIG Women’s Open champion Hinako Shibuno, three-time major champion and winner of this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship In Gee Chun, long-hitting Swede Madelene Sagstrom, who finished runner-up at last year’s AIG Women’s Open at Carnoustie, and Ashleigh Buhai.
Wait, you might say if you’re a casual fan of the women’s game: Ashleigh Buhai? One of these things is not like the others. Please explain.
Of course, comes the reply. Ashleigh Buhai might not be a household name. But she is a player you need to know.
Buhai is 33 and has been a steady presence on the LPGA Tour since 2008. While she hasn’t won yet, she hasn’t been in danger of losing her card. And if you cruise along the back of a driving range at a tour event, her golf swing will make you stop and stare. Smooth and rhythmic, Buhai has the kind of move that fans point to and say, ‘If only I…’
She certainly had fans saying that and a lot more on Friday at Muirfield. Seemingly oblivious to the wind, Buhai went on a tear early with four birdies and an eagle in her first nine holes to go out in 30, the best front-nine score of the first two days by a couple of shots.
Her first hiccup came at the 12th where she missed her spot with her approach by a matter of inches. At the best links courses, that’s all it takes. Rather than catch a ridge on the right side of the green and roll down to the hole, Buhai’s short iron caught the wrong side of a ridge and rolled into a greenside bunker. But, as if she was playing a friendly round on a Tuesday afternoon, she blasted out to 10 feet and rolled in the par putt like it was a tap-in.
She caught a break on 16 with a tee shot that could have ended up in trouble but found the rough instead. From there, she hit the back of the green, rolled her birdie effort about eight feet long and, once more, poured the comeback par putt into the center of the hole with a stroke that looked like it had produced 14 victories instead of 14 seasons without one.
The only drop of the day came at the last when an iffy lie in the fairway along with the magnitude of her situation hit her. A chunked approach ended up in a cross bunker. From there she blasted long and got up and down for bogey to end the day with a 65, a shot off the lead held by Chun, and tied with Sagstrom at 7-under par.
“I stayed very patient,” Buhai said. “Stuck with my steps and my processes, which is my goal this week, just do those well and hopefully the outcome takes care of itself. I've been doing that pretty well the last few weeks.”
Born Ashleigh Simon in Johannesburg, South Africa (Ashleigh married long-time tour caddie David Buhai in 2016), she had a remarkable amateur career, winning four professional events before turning pro including the 2004 South African Open at the age of 14, an event she won again as an amateur in 2017. Since then, Ashleigh has one runner-up finish at the 2019 Cambia Portland Classic. Her best finish in a major was a solo fifth in the AIG Women’s Open in 2019 at Woburn where she led after the second round.
“Every time you're in this position you get a little bit more familiar with it,” she said after posting the low round of the championship on Friday. “Obviously Woburn is very different, parkland as opposed to links. But I do love playing links golf. This is my favorite tournament of the year. I look forward to it, and I just -- I do love links golf and the creativity that you have to have.”
Buhai has two top-10 finishes in 2022, including a fourth at the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii where there are no days when the wind doesn’t blow. Her grinding, never-give-up nature should suit her well if conditions worsen over the weekend.
She also has a friend and mentor whose experiences she can draw from at Muirfield.
“I know Ernie (Els) won here (in 2002),” she said. “We were playing in our practice round, and I said to my caddie, ‘Let's see how Ernie hit the shot.’ I was YouTubing it while we were out there, his famous bunker shot.
“I haven't spoken to Ernie recently but I'm now living full-time in Florida and I got to play a little bit with him. He was my hero growing up. It's pretty cool to be able to play well for the first two rounds here and try to follow in his footsteps.”