It’s near impossible to overstate how good Ashleigh Buhai played on Saturday. Even with the mess she made on 18 – a lone bogey on an otherwise incredible card – the 33-year-old South African made Muirfield look like a central Florida muni. Her 64 in the third round of the AIG Women’s Open was the best round of the week by a shot, and the best of the day by two. And the five-shot margin she takes into the final round is the largest lead she has ever held in her 14-year LPGA Tour career.
Several players fired 65 this week in calmer conditions, including Buhai herself on Friday. But given what players faced in the third round, Buhai could have authored the round of the season. It was, without question, the best day of her career.
“Obviously I'm very pleased,” Buhai said afterward. “To be able to shoot that score in those conditions, you have to be able to pat yourself on the back; so much so that I thought I was 6-under, not 7. So, I was 8-under playing the last, which I think I have to look back, is probably one of the best rounds of golf I've ever played.”
The wind never entered the danger zone. Earlier on Saturday alarms on phones around East Lothian went off like Amber Alerts. Winds were expected to hit 30 mph. They never got that high but with a dearth of trees after the third tee at Muirfield, the gusts were enough to stand all the flags at attention and blow most of the shots along the prevailing gale.
Still, Buhai hit one fairway after another. The stats don’t look extraordinary – 11 of 14 fairways and 13 out of 18 greens hit – but all but one of the fairways she missed were by feet if not inches. The same with the greens. She was in one bunker all day, at the first hole, from which she got up and down, and the rest of the misses (with the exception of 18) were just a pace or two off the edge.
The only other time she looked close to dropping shot came on the par-5 17th, the only tee shot she mishit all day. The ball found the right rough. She hit a risky 5-wood that flirted with one of the perilous cross bunkers that almost always lead to bogeys. Then she caught a bad break when her ball found a divot. From 50 yards out, she thinned a wedge behind the green but chipped in for birdie.
“The wind was gusting up to 30 kilometers. We were playing three-club winds,” she said.
Given those conditions, has she ever played better?
“Probably not,” she readily admitted. “I think about when we played (the AIG Women’s Open) at Woburn a couple years ago (in 2019), I shot 64 or 65. I remember that being a really good day. I think I'm most proud of the way I just stayed focused and calm (today). That's all I try to control. I wasn't thinking of the outcome.
“I only saw a leaderboard for the first time I think when I was on 12 – no, 13. And then I just said to myself, okay, that's fine, you're in a good spot. Check back in with yourself now and concentrate on what you're trying to do.”
What Buhai, who is searching for her first LPGA Tour victory, was trying to do offers a lesson to us all. Rather than fight the elements and react to the vagaries that always accompany links golf, she went the opposite way.
“Just tempo, tempo, tempo,” she said when asked about the secret to such a spectacular round.
“If I swing 40% up (on the backswing) and I lock (myself) in at the top, then my tempo is good,” Buhai said. “You count one, two, three. That's all I'm trying to do is remind myself on every shot – 40% up, 40% up. That's my only focus. After that, wherever the ball goes, it goes. Luckily today, I hit it pretty straight.”
Tempo, tempo, tempo. Could it really be that simple?
In the pressure cooker of a major, with three-club winds blowing cold out of the north, it certainly was on Saturday for Ashleigh Buhai.