Ashleigh Buhai bravely overcame a nightmarish triple-bogey on the 15th to claim a hugely dramatic victory in the AIG Women’s Open, defeating In Gee Chun on the fourth hole of an extraordinary sudden-death play-off at Muirfield.
Thirty-two years on from this Championship’s last play-off, a remarkable conclusion left spectators gripped as Buhai and Chun, who had both finished on 10-under-par after respective rounds of 75 and 70, matched each other shot for shot over three extra trips down the 18th.
The end finally came – in fading light at 9:10pm local time – as Chun made bogey after driving into a fairway bunker and Buhai got up and down superbly from a greenside trap to clinch victory with a par.
The South African follows Gary Player and her childhood hero, Ernie Els, in claiming major glory at Muirfield. Like Els in 2002, Buhai suffered in regulation play and lost an overnight lead, but then showed immense courage to triumph in the extra holes that followed.
Both players parred the first play-off hole, bogeyed the second and parred the third, creating ever-increasing tension.
Yet after both players had repeatedly hit the fairway throughout the play-off, Chun finally erred on their fourth return to 18 – finding sand off the tee to ensure she could not reach the green in two.
The Korean – a three-time major champion – came close to rescuing an unlikely par, but Buhai finally ended proceedings by producing a magnificent bunker shot that left a putt of no more than two feet for victory.
Buhai, who held a five-shot lead overnight following remarkable rounds of 65 and 64 on Friday and Saturday respectively, had looked highly likely to claim her first major title in 72 holes when she retained a three-stroke cushion with four to play.
However, the South African endured a terrible time of things at the 15th. After finding a bunker from the tee, she then mishit her next shot into thick rough when trying to play out safely, before failing to make clean contact with her third.
The end result was a triple-bogey seven that left her level with Chun at 10-under and also brought Hinako Shibuno – Buhai’s playing partner in the final group – back into the equation.
Chun came agonisingly close to converting a long-range birdie putt at 16, while she and Buhai both missed excellent chances on 17.
After the Korean had parred the last and signed for a one-under 70 to post 274, Buhai raced a lengthy putt for victory five feet past the hole, but then held her nerve superbly to convert the return and force a play-off, with Shibuno (71) finishing just one behind on nine-under.
Leona Maguire carded the best score of the final day – a superb 66 in strong winds – to share fourth with Minjee Lee (69) and Madelene Sagstrom (71).
Since this Championship became a major in 2001, eight players had held leads of three shots or more going into the final round, with all of them going on to triumph.
However, the prospects of Buhai continuing that trend were thrown into doubt over the opening holes as she struggled for her best form and Chun – the winner of this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship – picked up birdies on two, four and six to reduce her deficit.
When Buhai bogeyed the par-5 ninth after finding a bunker off the tee, her lead was down to one, but it was soon restored to three as Chun dropped shots at 10 and 12, with strong winds again making life tough at Muirfield.
Buhai looked rock solid as she strung together five straight pars at the start of the back nine to significantly enhance her hopes of claiming a first major title.
No one could have possibly anticipated the drama that would follow, but Buhai eventually had reason to celebrate the biggest win of her career.