Ashleigh Buhai will head into the final day of the AIG Women’s Open with a five-shot lead after seizing control of the Championship with a truly magnificent performance on Saturday.
Strong winds were expected to cause major problems for the later starters in round three, but Buhai cashed in before the gusts intensified – following up her front-nine 30 on Friday by turning in 31 this time around.
As conditions became tougher, Buhai simply raised her level still further, picking up another shot at the 10th and then becoming only the second player all day to birdie the 14th, following a majestic second shot.
When Buhai finally showed signs of faltering, missing the fairway off the 17th tee and going over the back of the green with her third shot at the par-5, she had one more moment of magic at hand, chipping in for a scarcely believable eighth birdie.
A bogey at the last did little to take the shine off a sensational display, with Buhai’s seven-under 64 comfortably the best score of the day despite her facing the toughest of the weather. Over the past two rounds at Muirfield, she is an extraordinary 13 under and her total of 129 represents the best middle 36 holes in this Championship's history by three shots.
Hinako Shibuno – the Champion of 2019 – and three-time major winner In Gee Chun sit five back, with Inbee Park and Madelene Sagstrom facing a deficit of seven. Miyuu Yamashita, Minjee Lee and Steph Kyriacou share sixth place on five-under-par, nine behind Buhai.
The only player to come remotely close to matching Buhai among the leading contenders was first-round leader Shibuno, who completed a superb five-under 66. Nobody else in the final 10 groups broke 70, illustrating the sheer brilliance of Buhai and Shibuno.
That pair played together in the final group at Woburn in 2019 when Shibuno came away with the title. However, the 'Smiling Cinderella' started the last 18 with a two-shot lead on that occasion, whereas this time Buhai holds a healthy advantage as she looks to follow her childhood hero Ernie Els by securing major glory at Muirfield. It promises to be a fascinating final chapter to what has been a memorable Championship.
Playing in the penultimate group and one behind Chun overnight, Buhai birdied the second and wasted little time thereafter in pulling clear at the top of the leaderboard.
Her approach play was simply spectacular as she picked up shots in four holes in succession from the fourth, courtesy of three shots to within a few feet and a second into the heart of the green at the par-5 fifth.
When Buhai poured in her sixth birdie of the day at the 10th, she led by four, but the best was still to come and her unlikely birdies at 14 and 17 epitomised a majestic display.
After her chip-in on the penultimate hole, the runaway leader came close to holing out from off the green again on 18, only to miss the resulting eight-footer for par.
Buhai’s brilliance meant the outstanding efforts of Shibuno went somewhat under the radar. The Japanese was only one under at the turn, but then came home in 31 – a phenomenal effort given the rising winds. Prior to Buhai, she had been the sole player to birdie the fiendish 14th.
The final group of Chun and Sagstrom found life tougher as they carded scores of 70 and 71 respectively, although the former nevertheless holds a share of second place as she chases her fourth major title and a second in 2022.
Sagstrom and Park, who shot 70 in the company of Buhai, would require a huge comeback on Sunday, while Buhai looks to have taken every other player out of the equation.