Ashleigh Buhai believes years of toil have finally paid off after she claimed the AIG Women’s Open and her maiden major success at Muirfield.
Buhai sealed victory in the most dramatic fashion, edging In Gee Chun after four gruelling play-off holes. But that does not tell the full story, as Buhai had earlier allowed a five-shot lead to slip away, thanks largely to a triple-bogey seven at the 15th.
“It's been a long journey,” said the South African. “I turned pro when I was 18, there were 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.
“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.”
With the light fading and a return on Monday an ever-growing possibility, Buhai finally ended proceedings by producing a magnificent bunker shot that left a putt of no more than two feet for victory.
Her husband and former caddie David, who now carries Jeongeun Lee6’s bag, raced onto the green to congratulate Buhai when the final putt sank, and the newly crowned champion said that she was probably the calmer of the pair.
“I saw him for the first time when we got to the back nine, and he obviously just told me to keep doing what I was doing and stay in the moment,” she said.
“I think he was way more nervous than I was. It's always harder for those watching. I think when you're in the moment, you have control, so you're a lot calmer than they are.”
Buhai’s previous best finish at a major was tied-fifth at Woburn in 2019, where coincidentally, she was also in the final group and playing alongside eventual champion Hinako Shibuno, who finished third this time round.
As recently as February Buhai doubted whether she would ever be able to achieve major success and enlisted the support of a sports psychologist to help her over the line.
“I started working with a sports psychologist, mental coach, someone called Duncan McCarthy, in February this year,” she explained.
“If you told me in February that I would be sitting here, I would never have believed you with the mental state I was in, to be honest.
“I had been swinging good for a long time and could not keep myself in the moment. He's given me the tools, we say, to stay in the moment, and all I can control, and stay away from the outcome.
“We get so lost in what can happen, and sure, it's easy to drift and you're going to go there, but as long as you bring yourself back, it's fine.”
Buhai’s composure was tested to the max after the trouble at the 15th but she bounced back with three gutsy pars to take the Championship to a play-off, its first since 1990.
“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,” she said.
“And then obviously I ran my putt past on 18 a little bit but holed a great par to keep myself in the play-off.”
Victory for Buhai is extra special in light of her country’s rich history at this venue.
She follows in the footsteps of Gary Player, who sent her a message of good luck earlier in the week, and childhood hero Ernie Els in becoming the third South African - and first woman - to triumph at Muirfield.
“It's a huge honour. To follow those two greats, two of my idols growing up,” she beamed.
“For for us to play here for the first time at Muirfield, making history, I'm very, very honoured and very, very proud to be South African right now."