GULLANE, Scotland — A lot was happening late Saturday at Muirfield as Ashleigh Buhai and her caddy reached the 17th tee. Hannah Green, in the group ahead, had just met with medics after relieving her upset stomach in a port-o-john. In Gee Chun and Madeline Sagström, the next group behind, lagged multiple holes back, making bogeys through the toughest stretch of the course.
Back on the 17th, Buhai and her caddy, Tanya Paterson, were laughing. They had recalled an old tweet about a budget airline and even got a rise out of Inbee Park and her caddy. Buhai and Paterson stood there talking about return flights home, pace of play and lost luggage — extremely unbothered by the fact they were five shots clear of the field at the Women’s Open. They were making Muirfield look easy.
Buhai’s 14-under score through three rounds would have been laughable 72 hours ago, when players and pundits alike were agreeing that even par could be the winning score. But that’s where we are now that she’s carded rounds of 70, 65 and 64. Even better than she thought.
“To shoot that score in those conditions, you have to be able to pat yourself on the back,” Buhai said after the round. “So much so that I thought I was six under and not seven. I was eight under playing the last, so — I’d have to look back — it’s probably one of the best rounds I’ve ever played.”
You don’t have to look, Ashleigh. We all know where 64 at Muirfield ranks.
“She played perfectly today,” Park said. “I don’t remember her making any mistakes today, and even if she did, she ended up having a birdie like 17. That’s the kind of round you need to be a champion.”
If we’re nit-picking, there was the bogey on 18, but yes, that’s a champion-worthy round. In this part of the golf world, it takes four of those. Buhai has one more to go.
Her career to date has been highlighted by three wins on the Ladies European Tour, a playoff loss on the LPGA Tour and a fifth-place finish at the Women’s Open in 2019. Then there’s whatever she’s done this week. Buhai’s 65 on Friday finished with a bogey’s worth of sloppy swings on the 18th — exactly the kind of thing the 84th-ranked player in the world might do when leading a major championship for the first time.
But then she showed up Saturday and birdied the 2nd. She took a one-par break and birdied Nos. 4-7. When she finally looked at a scoreboard on the 13th, she was four shots clear. “I said, ‘OK, that’s fine, you’re in a good spot,'” she told reporters. “Check back in with yourself now and concentrate on what you’re trying to do.”
She added a birdie, straight into the stiffest, coolest wind we’ve seen all week at Muirfield, on 14, the toughest hole on the course. Inbee Park called her “flawless” as well, and that assessment is starting to make some sense. By the time she chipped in for birdie on 17, spectators started to shake their heads. “Sometimes it’s just meant to be,” one said aloud. She nearly holed another chip on 18.
The best round of Buhai’s life is now in the rear-view. The most important round of her life is somewhere out there in the distance, starting with a 3:50 tee time Sunday afternoon. She’s with Hinako Shibuno, a gal nicknamed the Smiling Cinderella, who just happened to beat her and everyone else in that 2019 Open.
Buhai enjoys an afternoon cup of tea, so during Sunday’s long morning wait, she’ll probably pour herself one of those. She watched a bit of the Wales Open Saturday morning, so she’ll probably do that again, too. And then she’ll arrive at Muirfield with all eyes, cameras and players in the field fixated precisely on her. By the time she reaches the 17th tee, she’ll be thinking about a lot more than a funny tweet.
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