Ashleigh Buhai records emotional first big win at 2022 AIG Women’s Open after four-hole playoff

Ashleigh Buhai had waited until she was 33 for her first major championship win, so four more holes was nothing. After taking 75 shots in the final round of the first Women’s Open at Muirfield to close a five-stroke lead, Buhai defeated In Gee Chun in a playoff that lasted more than an hour as the sun set on East Lothian, as well as the men’s and women’s major championship season.

Buhai is only a Cinderella story on the Wikipedia page. The South African came into the week short of major top 10s (her only one came at the 2019 Women’s Open in Woburn), but she was also ranked No. 84 in the world, having made the top 25 at the last two majors for women at the Women’s PGA Championship and the Evian Championship.

She came rolling on Muirfield for the first three days. A 70 in round 1 was followed by rounds of 65 and 64 with 13 birdies, an eagle and just two bogeys to put her five ahead of Chun as well as playing partner Hinako Shibuno who entered the final on Sunday to close out a historic week at Muirfield.

After playing the first 14 holes of the final round with enough 1 left, Muirfield caused disaster on the 15th par-4. Buhai hit her tee shot into a bunker and things got much worse from there. A sideways second preceded an extinguished third. She made a triple-bogey 7 and tied for second with Chun, who had a gap of lead. They both parried the last three holes to advance to a playoff.

For someone like Buhai, who played major championship in her 43rd career, this can often turn out to be 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 going downhill.

However, she put both hands on the wheel and regained her grip on the championship. It’s the sign of a mature player — Buhai has been a regular on the LPGA Tour since 2008 and was once the youngest winner in the history of the Ladies European Tour — but it’s also the sign of a champion, who is Buhai become.

There were also shaky moments in the play-offs. Both players went through temperature drops, poor second strokes and hair-raising putts to extend one of the biggest tournaments in the world. Buhai and Chun played the first three playoff holes — all 18 in Muirfield — in 13 strokes. Par-bogey-par. Then they headed to that tee for a fourth and—probably because of the fading sun and lack of light—last time for the evening, regardless of the outcome.

Chun opened the door by driving her ball into a bunker, but Buhai blocked her approach in a bunker that screamed “5”. Instead, she hit the shot of her life and Chun dropped a wonderpar bid short. Buhai poured a short cut to give her the championship that could have slipped through her fingers so many times over the past few hours.

Buhai joined fellow South Africans Gary Player (1959) and Ernie Els (2002) as champions at Muirfield.

“It’s so hard to put into words now, I think it won’t happen to me for a few days,” she said with tears in her eyes afterwards. “Of course I am very proud. We are a very small country, so to be able to produce a lot of big champions is quite a bit. For me to be a female South African and a big winner I have no words . It’s life-changing.”

It was an emotional victory for her, for very obvious reasons, but it was also an emotionally compelling victory to look forward to for less obvious reasons.

All the big wins — on both the men’s and the women’s sides — are life-changing, but not all of them for a bit life changing. And for Buhai, a career grinder who has not often won at the highest level in the world, this was a revelation. She grabbed the front of her cap and pulled it over her eyes, the reality of what she’d doubtless always imagined too much to bear in the moment. A great result after a long summer and an even longer career.

It’s great to see golfers trying to understand or contextualize what they just accomplished seconds after it happened. This happens all the time all over the golf world, but it rarely happens at this level with so 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 at number 15 and because of Muirfield – had more than anyone else in the 2022 big season both the past and the future written on her face. All at once and all in the present. What a great thing to watch.

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