Women’s British Open: She Delivered at Muirfield
At long last, Muirfield played host to a Women’s British Open, and Ashleigh Buhai proved up to the task
By Michael Bamberger
The Women’s British Open at Muirfield.
How good do those words sound?
They sounded good before the event began.
They sounded even better during the tournament’s scheduled 72 holes, plus the four extra ones that were needed to settle the matter.
And now that the thing is over?
The Women’s British Open at Muirfield, I’m here to tell you, was the second-best tournament of this year, after the men’s British Open at the Old Course.
The Women’s British Open. One of the three great titles in women’s golf, along with the U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s PGA Championship.
Muirfield. One of the two greatest courses in the Open rota (along with the Old Course).
Not that this Women’s British Open, for the longest time, was what you would call a wild event. After three rounds, you were almost tempted to say you could predict the winner, except you knew better. Nobody can predict jack squat when it comes to tournament golf in the wind on a links course.
But Ashleigh Simon Buhai, a South African who lives in South Florida, was in a good spot, leading by five shots. You had to like her chances.
Ernie Els did. He, too, is a South African who lives in South Florida. He won an Open at Muirfield. He has known Buhai, a 33-year-old who turned pro at 18, most of her life. As a child, Els will tell you, Ashleigh Simon was a prodigy. As a pro, the internet will tell you, Ashleigh Buhai has been a globetrotting journeywoman. She had never won an LPGA event, let alone a major.
Els was following the tournament with keen interest.
Kathy Whitworth, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the game, has never played a linksland course, but she was the captain of a U.S. Solheim Cup team at a parkland course 30 miles from Muirfield.
Miss Whitworth, now 82 years young, was following the tournament with keen interest.
Jody Rosenthal Anschutz, the former LPGA mainstay, played on the U.S. team in the 1984 Curtis Cup, held at Muirfield.
Anschutz was following the tournament with keen interest.
In ‘84, Muirfield was a famously old (1744) and stuffy men’s club with a superb course and an imposing birth-certificate name: the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. In recent years, things have changed. Since 2019, Muirfield has been a famously old (1744) and stuffy men’s club with a superb course that has about two dozen women members.
One of the female members today is Lindsey Garden, a 1-handicap who played in the Open as a marker.
“Good time to be a woman playing golf,” my colleague Matt Ginella said to Garden a while back. They were playing Muirfield and the stakes were high: Lunch. Lunch at Muirfield is a big deal.
“’Tis,” Lindsey replied.
Garden was following the tournament with keen interest.
The tournament began with 144 players. In other words, a full-field event. After 36 holes there was a cut, as there always is in full field events. Sixty-five players, at 3 over par or better, made the cut, including two amateurs, so Garden teed it up on the weekend as a non-competing marker. Buhai’s you-cannot-be-serious third-round 64, on the heels of a Friday 65, gave her that five-shot lead.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday.
The Women’s British Open at Muirfield.
Then came the par-4 15th hole on Sunday, when Buhai made a triple bogey and her lead went poof in the wind and the rough.
I was talking to Anschutz. I was in Philadelphia. She was at her summer home in Colorado. We were both watching on TV, and Jody was telling me about her three weeks in Scotland in June 1984.
She and her fellow Curtis Cuppers played in a one-day 36-hole event on the Old Course, the first playing of an event called the St. Rule Trophy. From there they went to Muirfield for the Curtis Cup. The following week, Jody won the British Women’s Amateur at Royal Troon.
At Muirfield, Jody and her teammates stayed at Greywalls, a small and regal hotel that was practically on the course. Her roommate for the week was her teammate and contemporary, Joanne Pacillo, a former Stanford golfer.
“We were wondering, Will we be able to go in the Muirfield clubhouse?” Jody told me. Right about then, Bahai was making a mess of the 15th.
And did they?
“We did, one time,” Jody said. “For a lunch, for both teams. It was, get in, get out. But it was great.”
Lunch at Muirfield is a big deal.
On TV, you could see that for this year’s event, a gigantic white tent was used as a clubhouse. That’s not unusual at major events, for the players to use tents suitable for weddings and then some.
Today, a needlepoint map of the Muirfield course hangs on a wall of Jody’s winter home in Arizona. Just to wrap up on ’84, the U.S. won that Curtis Cup over Great Britain and Ireland, 9.5-8.5. Jody fell in love with Muirfield, and ever since, she has followed what happens there.
She knew about the club’s first vote to admit women in 2016. The referendum failed to get the required two-thirds supermajority and the R&A announced the club would not get another Open, not for men, not for women. When it was put up for another vote in 2017, the referendum passed.
“They needed that pressure,” Jody said. That is, the prospect of never having another Open. “That was a huge carrot.”
Without that vote, Ash Buhai would not have had the chance to make that triple on 15 on Sunday.
That’s what Ernie calls her: Ash. He has played a lot of golf with her husband, Dave Buhai, a South African who used to caddie for Ash. “Dave’s a huge guy,” said Ernie, no small man himself. “He hits it for miles. He’s a hell of player himself.”
I asked Ernie how many shots he gives Dave.
“I can’t give him more than two or three a side,” Ernie said.
Ash comes by when the Ernie-and-Dave show is over and the last beer stein has been lifted.
“Ash won everything there was to win, coming up in South Africa,” Ernie told me over the phone. He was in an airport in Bangor, Maine. “She was another Sally Little,” Ernie said, citing the name of a legendary South African who came of golf age in the 1960s.
But Sally Little went on to win 15 times on the LPGA circuit. At age 33, after 15 years as a pro, Buhai was making a good living. On Sunday, she was in the day’s last twosome.
“We’ve talked some about it,” Ernie said, referring to why Buhai had struggled to win as a pro after all her success as a junior. “I wouldn’t want to get into it here, but something has been holding her back. She has a beautiful swing. Her husband’s a great guy. She’s got a beautiful putting stroke. I really hope she can get this thing done because if she doesn’t I’m afraid it will be a serious setback for her. But if she can win it, I can see her contending in and winning other big events.”
He also described how much he loves the course. “To me, it’s the best links course there is,” he said. “Every hole is at a different angle, with a different wind. It’s peaceful. You’re near the water but not on it. It’s a special piece of ground. The water goes right through it. There’s Greywalls. It’s where I played my first Open, in ’92. I love it.”
Nick Faldo won that ’92 Open. Ernie won the next one there, in 2002. Henry Cotton, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson have won the Open at Muirfield. Faldo has won two twice there. And now Ashleigh Buhai was trying to add her name to that list, with three-time major champion In Gee Chun, the 27-year-old Korean golfer who someday seems destined to be enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame, nipping at her Ecco heels.
“Ashleigh is playing good, but even par is not going to cut it,” Miss Whitworth told me before Buhai made that triple. She was in Dallas, where the summer has been so hot, she said, “you have to run from one shade tree to another.” She was in her air-conditioned home, watching the Women’s Open at Muirfield on her color TV.
I asked Miss Whitworth what she thought of Buhai’s swing.
“It’s kinda flat, a one-shot swing,” she said. “It’s not a swing that will hit hooks and slices and knock-down shots.”
Miss Whitworth was enjoying the golf, to a point. “I prefer a course with trees,” she said. “On this course, there’s nothing to aim at. I like a firm course, but on this course the ball is running 50 and 60 yards.”
Still, she was staying with it. She likes to see who wins and how the winner gets there. She knows what every professional golfer knows, that the game gives you nothing, and that your workweek is not over until your ball goes dark on the final hole.
In the space of an hour, with the air cooling and the sun setting and the pressure rising and the wind up, Buhai played the long par-4 finishing hole at Muirfield five times. She made about a 4-footer for par her first time through, to stay at 10 under and force a sudden-death playoff with Chun.
Buggies back to 18. Both made 4s on the first playoff hole. Els and I were texting back and forth.
Buggies back to 18. Both made 5s on the second playoff hole.
Buggies back to 18. Both made 4s on the third playoff hole.
Buggies back to 18. Night was creeping in. Time for one more go of it. Now the hole was playing like a short par-5.
Chun made a 5 after finding a fairway bunker. Buhai made a 4 after a long drop-dead-gorgeous shot from the greenside sand.
Man, was this first Women’s British Open at Muirfield good. Ashleigh Buhai took a sip of beer. Dave Buhai finished it.
“I know there are a lot of people in South Africa with a lot of gray hairs right now, after that 15th hole,” Buhai told the spectators in victory. “But I was very proud of the way I dug deep to keep myself together and get into the playoff. For me to be a female South African major winner, I have no words, it’s life changing!”
Add a name to the club, winners of Opens at Muirfield from South Africa: Gary Player, Ernie Els and Ashleigh Buhai.
Ernie’s final text in my direction on Sunday was an emoji, the same one you could see all over Ashleigh Buhai’s face: 🙏
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com