Ashleigh Buhai had waited until 33 years of age for her first major championship win, so four more holes was nothing. After shooting 75 in the final round of the first Women's Open at Muirfield to kick away a five-stroke lead, Buhai outlasted In Gee Chun in a playoff that lasted over an hour as the sun set on East Lothian, as well as the men's and women's major championship season.
Buhai is a Cinderella story in Wikipedia page only. The South African came into the week with a dearth of major top 10s (her only one came at the 2019 Women's Open at Woburn), but she was also ranked No. 84 in the world and had notched top 25s at the last two women's majors at the Women's PGA Championship and the Evian Championship.
She came out rolling the first three days at Muirfield. A 70 in Round 1 was followed by rounds of 65 and 64 that included 13 birdies, an eagle and just two bogeys to put her five clear of Chun as well as playing partner Hinako Shibuno going into the finale on Sunday to touch off an historic week at Muirfield.
After playing the first 14 holes of the final round in a sufficient 1 over, Muirfield wrought disaster at the par-4 15th. Buhai hit her tee shot into a bunker, and it got much worse from there. A sideways second preceded a duffed third. She made a triple-bogey 7 to fall into a tie for second with Chun, who was one hole ahead. They both parred the last three holes to go to a playoff.
For somebody like Buhai, who was playing in her 43rd career major championship, this can often become disastrous. The world starts spinning, the shots start racing and what 10 minutes ago felt like total control now feels like an 18-wheeler on ice heading downhill.
She put both hands on the steering wheel, though, and got the championship back in her grasp. It's the sign of a mature player — Buhai has been on the LPGA Tour off and on since 2008 and was once the youngest winner in Ladies European Tour history — but it's also the sign of a champion, which Buhai has become.
There were wobbly moments in the playoff as well. Both players grinded through drops in temperature, poor second shots and spine-tingling putts to extend one of the biggest tournaments in the world. Buhai and Chun played the first three playoff holes — all the 18th at Muirfield — in 13 strokes. Par-bogey-par. Then they went to that tee for a fourth and — because of the fading sun and lack of light, likely — final time for the evening no matter the outcome.
Chun opened the door by driving her ball in a bunker, but Buhai blocked her approach into a bunker that screamed "5." Instead, she hit the shot of her life and Chun left a miracle par bid short. Buhai poured in a short one to give her the championship that could have slid through her fingers so many times over the previous several hours.
Buhai joined fellow South Africans Gary Player (1959) and Ernie Els (2002) as champions at Muirfield.
"It's so difficult to put into words now, I think it might only hit me in a few days," she said through tears afterwards. "Obviously I'm very proud. We're a very small country, so to be able to produce quite a few major champions, it's quite something. For me to be a female South African and a major winner, I've got no words. It's life changing."
It was an emotional win for her, for very obvious reasons, but it was also emotionally compelling victory to watch for less obvious ones.
All major wins — on both the men's and women's side — are life-changing, but not all are equally life-changing. And for Buhai, a career grinder who hasn't won very often at the highest level in the world, this one was a revelation. She gripped the front of her cap and pulled it over her eyes, the reality of what she had undoubtedly always envisioned too much for her to bear in the moment. A beautiful result to a long summer and an even lengthier career.
Kyle Porter and Mark Immleman discuss Ashleigh Buhai's victory at the AIG Women's Open. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
It's a marvelous curiosity to watch golfers try and comprehend or contextualize what they've just accomplished seconds after it happens. This takes place all the time all over the golf world, but it rarely happens at this level with this much at stake. Buhai — because of her week and because of a long (but not illustrious) career and because of the way she revived herself after what could have been a nightmare on No. 15 and because of Muirfield — more than anyone else in the 2022 major season had both the past and the future written all over her face. All at the same time and all in the present. What a wonderful thing to watch.
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