Ashleigh Buhai is eagerly anticipating an atmosphere to savour at Walton Heath when she defends her AIG Women’s Open crown in August.
Buhai claimed her maiden major title in thrilling fashion at Muirfield in 2022, edging out In Gee Chun on the fourth hole of a sudden-death play-off completed in fading light.
The South African had previously contended for AIG Women’s Open glory in 2019, when she made it into the final group only to finish fifth as Hinako Shibuno prevailed.
That Championship was held at Woburn and Buhai is now looking forward to returning to the south of England when Walton Heath serves as host for the first time.
“The support we normally get when we are in that area, the crowds are always fantastic, so I’m pretty sure that they’re gonna come out in their numbers and it’s always fantastic to be able to play in front of a lot of people,” said Buhai.
“I’m sure it’s going to be exciting for me. Obviously there will be pressure on me being a defending champion, but I’m just gonna go there and hopefully do what I did (at Muirfield).
“It’s going to be difficult to defend but to know that I can go back every year and call myself a past champion, it’s a huge honour.
"The AIG Women’s Open has been very good to me in the past, not just (in 2022). It’s my favourite event of the year and I do look forward to Walton Heath.”
Buhai’s two best performances in the AIG Women’s Open have each involved final-round pairings with Shibuno.
The Japanese star was victorious in 2019, but Buhai was delighted to be in her company once again three years later.
“It was a very comfortable pairing for me. I think we fed off each other,” said the 33-year-old.
“Shibuno, she’s such a lovely person, a happy, bubbly person, and I think being in that pairing with her made me feel at ease too.
“She won it in '19 and then I managed to pull it off this year. There were so many things that particular week where the stars just aligned when you look back.
“Even when we talk about myself and Ernie (Els, who won The Open in a play-off at Muirfield in 2002), there were so many parallels that week. Maybe it was just meant to be.”
Like Els at The Open 20 years earlier, Buhai looked to be in a comfortable position on the final day, only to suffer a damaging setback over the closing stretch.
Els double-bogeyed the par-three 16th in 2002, while a triple-bogey seven on the 15th threatened to derail Buhai’s bid for a first major triumph.
After conceding a three-shot advantage in such dramatic fashion, Buhai recalled advice from another South African golfing legend as she demonstrated immense resilience to prevail.
“Gary Player reached out during the week and gave me a few good tips and advice,” she added.
“It was, ‘be patient, everybody’s gonna hit a bad shot, and think win’. I did (keep that in mind), especially after 15.
“I’d come so far and I could have let it affect me and come home in an ambulance, as they say. But I didn’t, I dug deep.
“You don’t know when you’re gonna get that opportunity again and I was like ‘I’ve got to take full advantage of this’ and we’re here to win. That’s what I kept thinking to myself.
“I think with the way it all went down and winning in the play-off, when that opportunity comes again and my back’s against the wall, I know I can do it.”
You can watch Ashleigh Buhai’s title defence at Walton Heath by purchasing tickets for the 2023 AIG Women’s Open here.