Twenty years ago Ernie Els played one of the great bunker shots in Open history to put the finishing touches, finally, on a four-hole play-off and add his name to the long and decorated list of Open champions at Muirfield.
The Women’s Open had never visited this corner of East Lothian before, but here we had another South African, Ashleigh Buhai, facing another greenside bunker shot and four holes into a sudden death play-off. The result was the same and a par four was good enough to edge out In Gee Chun who had won her third Major just a few weeks earlier.
For Buhai, at the age of 33, it was her first big one and it came from a very different place. Here the South African recalls how she learned and adopted the mental skills to get her over the line…
‘I have always been a pretty relaxed player but the frustrations were building up and up and it was a case of the pressure, having done this for 15 years, and not achieving what I thought I would be affecting me more and more. All these things off the course were putting pressure on me on the course.
I first started working with my mental coach Duncan McCarthy in November 2021. My long-term swing coach Doug Wood put us in touch. Doug knew my potential but he knew that there was a missing link. He knew that I needed the self-belief.
When Dunc and I first started working together we looked at the non-golfer first, then the human, and then the golfer. For the first three months we didn’t really talk very much about the golf. It was more about getting me the person back where I wanted to be and taking the pressure off me and getting me to play free golf again. I think that I soon realized how Covid had affected me, not being able to see my family and friends back in South Africa, and once we had got through that then we worked more on the golf course.
It is always hard for a golfer to be more accepting of the outcome of a shot, but I just tried to become better. It was also a case of trying to do one thing right instead of five things right every day. And maybe don’t go into panic mode as well when things aren’t going right. And the more that we practiced that, the easier that it became. Just to focus on getting one thing right a day, one thing that I could control instead of thinking of something else in my swing or something else mentally.
We didn’t meet in person until March 22, we did a lot of on-course work at Palm Beach and all of that work, and the previous video and telephone calls, really helped me take the next step. Then, three weeks later, it really clicked on the course.
We did a lot of work on the putting side where everything was good fundamentally but I would doubt myself. I had four steps in my routine; read the putt, plumb the putts, line the ball up and then hit it. I would keep second-guessing myself in between the stages, so he came up with the idea of closing the door after each stage. So read it. Close the door. Plum it, trust it and close the door. Line it up. Close the door. And hit it. That was my routine and my only focus – no more second-guessing and committing to it. If it didn’t go in, then I had still done everything that I wanted to do.
My acceptance was the best that it had ever been and after three rounds I had a five-stroke lead. The hardest part was the Sunday morning, I was teeing off at 4pm which is brutal. I felt sick, I was at the house on my own and I was emotional. I spoke to Dunc and he just said this was all normal. He could never stop me going to the future but, with the right tools, we could manage that. You’re bound to think about the win, the history and the exemptions, but we focused on doing my processes well and, if we could do that, then we would hopefully get the outcome that we wanted. If we didn’t and I had stuck to those, that’s all that I could control.
We also talked about how things won’t always go to plan.
At the 15th I drove it into a fairway bunker, then it got unlucky and plugged up the face and I had nowhere to go. I treble-bogeyed it but I was still tied for the lead. I stood on the next tee and said the same thing that I had on every swing – keep my rhythm and, because of the wind, swing my backswing at 40 per cent.
I hit the green at the par-3 16th and I settled quickly again. Under pressure putting is the most nervous part, but I holed a four-footer for par and I was good again. I then holed a five-footer to get into the play-off so I was suddenly pumped again.
The tee shot at 18 is very difficult but I didn’t miss it once. I like to hit a fade, the wind was off the right and I like to hold into the wind so I would just try to hit the same tee shot over and over – 40 per cent on the backswing, hold it on the wind.
My husband Dave says that I don’t give myself enough credit for my bunker play and my caddy said to show everyone why I was the number one player from sand at the time. The moment makes it huge but I picked my spot, it was a long way to carry it but it was downwind and a little downhill lie. So I knew that if I stayed committed and landed it where I wanted, the elements would do the rest for me. It’s not like I had to rip it and stop it. It was a tough shot but I’ve played way tougher, the shot on the second play-off hole when I was closer to the lip was actually tougher. There were a few similarities with me and Ernie so maybe it was supposed to be.
You always want to believe that you can win a Major but you also think realistically in terms of how long you’ve been doing it and how tough it is to win a tournament, let alone a Major. Doug and I had done such a lot of good work on my swing but, had I not started working with Dunc, I wouldn’t have been able to win at Muirfield.
As a Major winner I don’t feel any different. I don’t like the limelight and I like to be in my own cocoon, maybe I should live it a bit more. When you win one you don’t want to be a one-hit wonder and I want this to be the start of something. Emotionally it took me a good two months to get my head around it, but it’s a lovely feeling to know that nobody can take my name off the trophy and that is something that I will always cherish.’