The Rainbow Nation is breathing a huge sigh of relief, I imagine, as it sets to, celebrating its latest major golf champion. Ashleigh Buhai triumphed in the AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield last weekend, but, boy, did she make her supporters sweat all the way to the finishing line.
Five ahead going into the final round Buhai’s lead was cut a couple of times, albeit fleetingly, to a single shot. By the time she had four holes left to play, however, the margin was three and all was seemingly cool, calm, collected and under control. A loose tee shot into a bunker, followed by a recovery into nasty rough and a bad lie, resulted twenty minutes later in a triple bogey seven and all advantage had well and truly vanished, wafted away on the strong breezes that had blown across the links for the duration of the championship.A lifetime of involvement in golf, whether playing, coaching or watching the best in the world, has led me to conclude that it is in these moments that champions are born. Of course, the brilliant moments and the miracle shots are what we see on the highlights reels and what we remember and they are essential to record a win of this magnitude. But I do feel that Ashleigh Buhai won that championship as she walked from the 15th green to the 16th tee.
A short memory is a bonus in this sport and Ashleigh’s steely mental inner strength – a skill totally invisible to the onlooker – helped her to stay in the present, giving herself the platform and the opportunity to perform to her best under the severest pressure. As much as any other, it was this skill which enabled her to win.
The concentrated work she has put in since February with sports psychologist Duncan McCarthy certainly was worth its weight in gold. “I thought it was huge that I didn’t lose my cool,” she said, with true Ashleigh understatement. “I was surprisingly calm. I kept going through my steps and my thoughts.”
Those steps and thoughts led her to a fourth hole play-off victory in the gloaming over South Korea’s In Gee Chun, who was seeking to close out a career grand slam.Buhai now becomes the third South African, and first woman, to win a major at Muirfield, following in the footsteps of Gary Player and Ernie Els, winners of the Opens of 1959 and 2002 respectively. She is very aware of her country’s golf history, and now her own place in it.
“It’s a huge honour. To follow those two greats, two of my idols growing up,” she said, beaming. “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.”
Ashleigh is also following in the footsteps of Alison Sheard, for so long South Africa’s only winner of the Women’s Open. Ali won this title back in 1979 at the lovely Southport & Ainsdale Golf Club at a time when the trophy was a pair of silver candlesticks and the sponsor Pretty Polly of stocking fame. I played in that Open and if my back were a little more flexible I’d head up to the attic where I’m pretty sure I have a picture of the trophy presentation. That’ll have to be another trip for another day but I know for a fact that Ali will be cracking open the champers to celebrate her countrywoman’s win.
The week was also a resounding success for Muirfield, who staged arguably one of the best Women’s Opens ever. According to Dame Laura Davies the players couldn’t find a single thing to complain about, which, she said, was pretty unusual. The club may have been very late to the party in allowing women to become members but they are embracing their mixed membership and support of women’s golf in equal, fulsome, measure.
This all led to yet another first during the week. Sixty-five players qualified for the final two rounds which meant that each day one of the players had to go out with a marker. That honour fell to Muirfield member Lindsey Garden, better known to many of our more experienced readers as Lindsey Anderson, former Scotland international. and professional caddy on the men’s European Tour. Lindsey, a member of the club for a year, revelled in her role although she admitted to being very nervous as well as honoured.Lindsey is accustomed to being a bit of a trailblazer, however, and after representing her country on the International stage for a number of years she became one of only two female caddies on the men’s European tour. The other female caddy was none other than the great Fanny Sunneson. The two women probably bonded over the fact that they had both caddied for former Ryder Cup player Howard Clark, a sublime striker of the ball but one possessed of a dubious temperament. Patricia reliably informs me certain members of the media used to refer to him as “the pinless grenade.”
It certainly wasn’t an easy gig but many years later when Lindsey was spectating at a tournament, Howard, in his role as on-course commentator, spotted her on the other side of the ropes. He made a beeline over to her to say hello and suggested they meet after the round for a drink. When they did meet, he apologised profusely for the way he’d spoken to her over the years and was really sorry for his behaviour.
Seems with the passage of time he’d located that misplaced pin!