As darkness fell on Scotland's Golf Coast, Ashleigh Buhai recovered from the unrecoverable to fend off the charge of In Gee Chun. Matt Cooper reports

It is the unfortunate fate of a runaway leader to paradoxically produce an underwhelming experience for those watching from the sidelines. We so churlishly crave a scrap, and so covet intense competition, that we tend to denigrate the excellence of a player who is thumping the opposition, who is leaving them in their wake.

That’s what appeared to be happening when Ashleigh Buhai led the AIG Women’s Open by three shots with four holes to play at Muirfield, having kept the field at bay throughout a final round she had begun with a dominant five-stroke lead.

No 54-hole leader in the history of the championship had frittered away such an advantage and Buhai hadn’t looked like doing so, despite having failed to convert the four previous leads she’d held on the main tours with 18 holes to play. She’d earned her position, she’d banked the opportunity to make the odd error, she was keeping the chasers at bay.

Whereupon her challenge fell flat on its face and everyone watching sat up straight.

Her drive at the 15th found sand, her sideways escape found deep rough, her first hack found more high grass, her second came up short of the green and she needed three blows to find the hole. A triple-bogey seven immediately wiped out the lead.

It was game on and Buhai was now ailing yet captivating. Bizarre really – her elite level golf struggled to hold our attention, her desperate efforts captured it. Remember to never trust a crowd. We’re fickle, probably a bit stupid, and more than a little bit voyeuristic.

Had the South African negotiated the final four holes in level-par her achievement might easily have been swiftly forgotten. An impressive effort, but because it lacked drama easily locked away.

Instead, she played the final three holes and the four extra holes peering ahead of her like a woman being asked to descend into a dark, frightening and unpleasantly whiffy cave. Her face wore a fearful frown, nose wrinkled, her brow not so much furrowed as chiselled into her forehead as if suffering from a fierce migraine.

AIG Women's Open

The contrast with the golfer who had caught her, In Gee Chun, was remarkable. The Korean set a clubhouse target of 10-under 274, which Buhai just about managed to equal, and she did it all with an unhurried grace, a deliberate stride, nods of the head to her fans in the gallery, a wave and a smile to the television cameras.

Yet those of us watching from the outside were again in error. Just a few weeks ago, ahead of the third major championship of the year, Chun told her sister that the game was making her miserable. Her sibling suggested she give the game up which had an unexpected consequence. Chun realised she wanted to do no such thing, promptly won the KPMG PGA Championship and then found herself mounting her first serious challenge in this linksland tournament.

The playoff which followed was dogged and it was no surprise: only two golfers had made birdie there in the final round. The pair exchanged pars and bogeys until the fourth attempt, taking place in near dark, saw Buhai save par from the bunker and Chun’s short game – she had finished 37th for Greens in Regulation for the week while her chipping and putting had been a near-championship winning marvel – finally let her down.

AIG Women's Open

Afterwards, Chun clutched a gift from a friend – a children’s book called ‘Just Don’t Give Up’. “I’m still happy,” this quietly courageous golfer said. “It’s not like happy-happy, but still I made a good result.”

And guess what? Buhai’s appearance had also been deceptive. How had she felt leaving the 15th green? “I was fairly calm to be honest,” she said. “I didn’t panic, which I thought was huge. It would have been very easy to come home in an ambulance. But I saw a leaderboard walking up 16 and was like, OK, just hit it. Have a good swing. You can only control this shot. Hit one shot at a time.”

It’s one thing to say such things, another for a 33-year-old yet to transfer youthful promise into LPGA success to actually achieve it. Where had such faith in her game so deep into a major championship come from?

“I started working with the sports psychologist Duncan McCarthy in February this year and if you told me then that I would be sitting here I would never have believed you with the mental state I was in to be honest,” she said.

“I had been swinging good for a long time but could not keep myself in the moment. He’s given me the tools to do that. I control what I can control and stay away from outcome.”

AIG Women's Open

Ultimately she won as we prefer. She made mistakes, she scraped the barrel, she revealed her weaknesses, she overcame them and we were impressed. Had she played the 15th better and strolled home we would have been less dazzled.

A week that started with this column being told by Karen Stupples that playing tour golf is no straightforward business ended with proof that watching it isn’t either.

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