AIG Women’s Open defending champion, Ashleigh Buhai, looks back on her wonderful week at Muirfield last year, explains the globetrotting journey the trophy has been on, and delves into the rise in female sport and what needs to happen to bridge the cash gap between the men’s and women’s games…
Tell us about your year as the AIG Women’s Open Champion
It’s been a wonderful time since winning the AIG Women’s Open. In the beginning, it was a bit of a whirlwind, adjusting to my time and people wanting a few more things from me at tournaments. Traveling around with the trophy has been a fun experience. Although as an extra piece of hand luggage, it is quite heavy, and that’s been a good problem to have. It’s been a really fun journey.
Do you know much about Walton Heath?
No, I haven’t ever played there. I’ve heard a lot of great things about it. I think with us being in the greater London area, we’ve always had fantastic crowds. So I think we are looking forward to a great event.
I think Ellie Goulding playing is the best thing ever. We have always had really good crowds when we have come to Scotland and England. It’s always been a really well-supported championship obviously. The people in the UK are known for their golf etiquette, and everything about golf, they just love it. But bringing in this different point of view into golf, trying to attract more people, maybe a younger generation to try and make it a bit more fun, I think is a fantastic way to attract new people to golf. I think it’s going to create some buzz around the tournament and some new excitement.
Casting your mind back to the final round, you had the tournament under control and then you didn’t. How proud are you of how you fought back?
Tremendously proud. I still say to this day, I feel like I hit one bad shot on the 15th hole which was the drive. The lie I had in the bunker was plugged up the face. I only had one way to go, which is the way I went. And before I knew it, I made triple. But the mental work I had done on my game stood me in good stead for that moment.
It was really the first time I looked up at the leaderboard and I saw then I was tied for the lead. I said to myself, well, I haven’t lost the lead, which I think was a good point of view and my caddie said to me, alright, let’s get back on it.
And all I tried to do was what I had done that whole week was try and make one good swing and use my mental thought for my swing that week, and that’s all I could try and do. The rest is history but I am very proud of myself to be able to fight back and win the championship the way I did.
When you reflect on Muirfield, what’s the outstanding memory?
I still think the golf course. What an unbelievable golf course it was, and for us to be able to play there, and them to host the AIG Women’s Open for the first time. What a great test it was. Everything ran so well that week from the R&A’s side.
The play-off and how In Gee and I went head-to-head down the last, getting into the dark. We didn’t know that that was going to be the last hole. I think also if we had known, that would have thrown another spanner into the works but I think for our sakes, it was a good thing we didn’t know.
What did it do for your confidence?
It just gave me the extra belief in myself. I needed to know that I could win in the biggest pressure situation and get the job done. I had won on the LET multiple times.
I had not quite crossed the line on the LPGA. But then winning it in the fashion that I did kind of just sparked something in me, gave me that confidence. It’s been the best year of my career. I went down to Australia and won the Australian Open.
Then I went back to South Africa because my goal was to hold three national open titles at the same time. I think that was the most pressure I put on myself with it being my home title and wanting to win really badly. I just managed to get the job done there. It’s been very exciting.
What was it like for you to return home as a major champion?
It was amazing. My home club, Royal Johannesburg, put on an evening and about 120 people came, including friends and family members. It was just so fun to be able to finally celebrate with the people that have really walked this journey with me since I was a kid and turned professional. They know the highs and lows that really go into being a professional golfer, so to finally get back to celebrate with them was truly special.
We are very passionate when it comes to all our sports in South Africa. We’ve always got the recognition that we deserve when something does happen.
I think me being female, having the long career after I touted to come out straight out the gates and be the next big thing. I won early on in my career and then as the game does, it ebbs and flows, and then finally reached a potential we all thought could happen.
It was really exciting when I finally got to go home and experience that and when I got to play the Investec South African Women’s Open in March, to feel that everybody was so appreciative that I had come back to play. A lot of young girls were excited to meet me. I’m hoping that will spark something in the women’s game in South Africa.
How will you prepare for your defence?
I’ll be playing the two weeks before at the Evian Championship and the Women’s Scottish Open, so I’ll be on site by Monday. I think you’ve got to treat every tournament the same. You’ve got to do the same preparation you do for every week, and you can’t really put one on a bigger pedestal becauseit creates more anxiety and more tension. I just try to do the same preparation week-in and week-out to create consistency.
Have you set any goals?
No. Obviously to rock up there and defend would be the ultimate goal. But again, what I’ve learned on the mental side is once you start setting outcome goals, that’s where your mind goes to and the way you achieve outcome goals is sticking to the processes.
I’ll be just whatever state I’m in at that moment, wherever my game is at that time. Hopefully I can have a good week. The goal will be sticking to the processes and I know there will be a little bit more hype with me defending and I’ve just got to try and stay in my own bubble and do the best I can.
You said the trophy had been on quite a tour
It’s had a lot of alcohol drunk out of it by many, many people around the world. I went to Australia, and from there South Africa and it’s been to Canada, and all around the US. I’ve even got it here with me this week for the next four weeks because all the host families that I stayed with throughout the years all want to see it, and mostly have a drink out of it. It’s been very special to share that with everybody.
Women’s sport has had quite a revolution in recent years. How do you think golf fits in?
I think we are right up there with it. Obviously, the majors have taken on a step to bump all the purses up, and I think it’s fantastic. Basically, the winner gets to take home almost $1m in all the majors now. It’s life-changing, especially for us, whose average purses have been between $1.5m and $2m every week. To be able to have five majors and this opportunity to play for that amount of money, and at the same time all the other sponsors are finally starting to follow suit in regular tournaments. It is starting to increase, and I think it’s fantastic with all women’s sports that we are finally getting the recognition we deserve.
Describe how the ladies’ game has changed over your career
This is my 16th year as a professional. The money has changed tremendously in terms of what we are playing now from when I started. I think the depth is so much better.
If you look back, every generation has had its greats, but right now when you rock up to a tournament, I feel anybody can win. Even looking at last year, how many of us in our 30s are starting to win on the LPGA.
Obviously technology has helped. The way we train has helped, and I think the longevity is now becoming better for players that are more experienced and we are using that experience instead of our youth and strength to win tournaments. I think golf is in such a good place at the moment.
What would you like to see happen next? What are the next steps?
Ultimately, we want to be playing for more money every week. It still is a case of you look at, say, the 120th person on the PGA Tour Money List, they are still making easily over a million dollars.
If you look at 100th on the LPGA, which is what keeps your card, it’s maybe $250,000. So the gap is still far too big, and unfortunately, with what it costs to travel these days, the experience, flights, caddies, accommodation, you’re still just probably breaking even or coming out with a little bit of something. particularly if you don’t have sponsors.
It is very stressful. I played like that for many, many years. Probably only in the last six years, I haven’t had those stresses, making sure that I have to have X amount so that I can start off my next year. That’s something that people don’t really see from behind the scenes of what we have to go through.
What would you say to any girls or women thinking about getting into the sport?
You have to want to do it yourself. I feel a lot of parents unfortunately push their kids into any sport nowadays, not just golf, because they want them to be superstars. But you have to have the love and passion for it.
I think that’s why, at 34 years old, I’m still doing this. I was never pushed into it. My parents supported me, sure and my dad said, you need to practise if you want to be good. You need to have the love for it. You need to want to put in the time, and have the patience and, most of all, you just need to enjoy the journey of the whole process.
• Learn more and book your tickets for the AIG Women’s Open here. Ellie Goulding is performing on the Saturday evening after the golf
What did you think of Ashleigh Buhai’s wonderful AIG Women’s Open performance last year? Can she defend her title at Walton Heath? Let us know with a tweet.
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