Inbee Park wasn’t shy in delivering praise for AIG Women’s Open leader Ashleigh Buhai, who grabbed control of this historic championship Saturday while playing alongside Park. The 33-year-old leads the field by five shots entering Sunday’s final round at Muirfield.
“She was flawless,” said Park, who knows what it takes to win a major on links; she did so at Turnberry in 2015.
That year, Park shot 7 under on the final day to best runner-up Jin Young Ko by three shots. It was a round in which Park likened to the one Buhai posted on Saturday.
Buhai – the South African who owns just one top 10 (a solo fifth at the 2019 Women’s Open) to go along with 20 missed cuts in 42 previous major starts – fired a 7-under 64 that was capped by a bogey at the par-4 18th hole. Before that, Buhai carded eight birdies in windy Scottish conditions (winds near 20 mph, gusts close to 30), including five in her first seven holes and a chip-in at the par-5 17th.
“To be able to shoot that score in those conditions, you have to be able to pat yourself on the back,” Buhai said. “… Probably one of the best rounds of golf I've ever played.”
“I wish I would have played the golf course she played today,” quipped Madelene Sagstrom, who is seven shots back. “No, phenomenal golf round. I (could) not see a 7 under out there today. Great job to her, and I think the rest of us are just hoping to find that momentum top.”
Added Park: “She played perfect today. I don't remember her making any mistakes today, and even if she did, she ended up having a birdie like 17. That's kind of round that you need to be a champion.”
Park, however, wasn’t quite willing to throw in the towel for her and her fellow competitors. Hinako Shibuno and In Gee Chun, with four major wins between them, are tied for second at 9 under while Park, a seven-time major champ, shares fourth with Sagstrom at 7 under.
That’s a lot of major-winning experience chasing a player with just five top 25s in 42 major appearances. (Buhai owns three LET wins but none on the LPGA.)
“She has a huge lead, but like I said, this golf course, with the wind blowing on the back nine like this (Sunday’s forecast calls for similar wind), you just don't know what's going to happen,” Park said. “And losing three or four shots is just really easy out there. So yeah, just never give up, and just try to make some opportunities. Just got to play some good golf just like Ashleigh today.”
Buhai downplayed her sizable cushion as well – even if since the Women's Open became a major in 2001, no player has surrendered a 54-hole lead of four or more shots. Six-shot leaders Lorena Ochoa (2007) and In-Kyung Kim (2017) won by four and two shots, respectively; Jeong Jang (2005) turned a five-shot lead into a four-shot win; and Yani Tseng (2010) held on to win by one after leading by four.
“I don't think you can ever be comfortable in a major, whether you're coming from behind or leading,” Buhai said. “It's going to be another tough day. The wind is going to blow, which is good. I prefer it that way. But they say big leads are often more difficult, and I think because you try to maybe play defensively. But I think I'll just keep doing what I'm doing and sticking to those steps.”
If Buhai does what she did Saturday, no one’s catching her.