South African Ashleigh Buhai wins AIG Women’s Open in playoff

LPGA Communications

GULLANE, SCOTLAND: It took 15 years of hard work and patience, and 76 holes of determination at Muirfield. Now, South African Ashleigh Buhai is a major champion. Buhai outlasted three-time major champion In Gee Chun in a four-hole, sudden-death playoff to win the 2022 AIG Women’s Open, becoming the first woman to etch her name on the trophy at the famed links of Muirfield.

“In Gee is a major champion, and I knew I had to go out and win it. I mean, 18 played so tough the whole week, so it was going to be a grind and then it started to get cold and windier,” said Buhai, a 33-year-old from Johannesburg. “I was just very proud of how I managed to stay focused on myself and try to do what I needed to do.”

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With the win, Buhai became the second women’s major winner from South Africa, joining Sally Little (1980 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, 1988 du Maurier Classic). She also joined seven men who have won major titles, including Gary Player and Ernie Els, who won at Muirfield in 1959 and 2002, respectively. Buhai became the 44th player to become a Rolex First-Time Winner at a major championship.

Buhai, who started the day with a five-stroke lead at -14, never looked as at ease on the Muirfield links on Sunday as she had the previous three rounds. She carded one birdie and two bogeys on the front nine, but still held a three-stroke lead at -13 at the turn as the field around her failed to capitalize. Chun had pulled within one stroke of Buhai, but dropped three strokes behind with bogeys at 10 and 12.

But it all went haywire at No. 15 for Buhai, who found a fairway bunker off the tee and hit out sideways, needing two shots to escape the deep rough. After sending the ball off the back of the green with her fifth shot, she needed two putts to find the hole with a triple-bogey 7, dropping into a tie with Chun at -10.

“It’s probably the worst swing I made all week. Was a little quick on the top. But if I had half a lie in that bunker, a plug off the drive, I could have got it out the other way in the fairway. Obviously compounded the mistake,” said Buhai. “I didn’t panic, which I thought was huge, and just tried to make a good swing on the next and just try to make good swings coming in to give myself a chance.”

Buhai had a prime opportunity at No. 17 to reclaim the lead. After blasting out of a greenside bunker, her birdie putt at No. 17 hit the right edge of the cup and ricocheted out, leaving a stunned Buhai to tap in for the par.

On the first playoff hole, Chun executed a masterful up-and-down from the right greenside bunker to save par, while Buhai two-putted from the front of the green. On the second, Chun flubbed her chip out of the left rough, then blew her par putt 5 feet past the hole. Buhai’s 6-footer for par came up just short, leaving her a tap-in for bogey, and Chun nailed the comebacker to force another hole.

On the third trip back to No. 18, Buhai’s birdie attempt was right on line, but heartbreakingly died to the left. On her fourth tee shot of the playoff, Chun made her first major error of the day, putting her tee shot close to the front face of a fairway bunker. With Chun sitting three off the back edge of the green, Buhai’s second ended up in the greenside bunker and it seems like the nerves of the moment were getting to her. But she executed a perfect shot and put the ball to 3 feet. Buhai then knocked in the par putt and immediately burst into tears, enveloped by a bear hug by her husband David Buhai, who caddies for Jeongeun Lee6 and who was surrounded by fellow players and caddies for the duration of the playoff.

“I think I did what I can do,” said Chun. “Ashleigh made a great up-and-down on 18. Almost close, but still, I don’t want to give up and I just want to look for another tournament, another day.”

Buhai joined the LPGA Tour as a rookie in 2008 and spent the next six years bouncing between the LPGA Tour and the LET. She returned to the LPGA Tour full-time in 2014 and played the classic career of the journeywoman, consistently earning enough to maintain her status but never claiming a breakthrough victory. With a thrilling four days at Muirfield, Buhai finally added her name to the LPGA Tour record books.

“I turned pro when I was 18. I was kind of expected, there was a lot of things expected of me. I won straight off the bat on the Ladies European Tour. But this game has a way of giving you a hard time,” said Buhai. “I’m just so proud of how I’ve stuck it out. I have said the last four or five years, I’ve finally started to find my feet on the LPGA and felt I could compete, and although I’m 33 now, I feel I’m playing the best golf of my career. It’s been a long journey, but man, it’s all worth it right now.”

Fairways Magazine

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