Just when a glimmer of hope had been provided to the field, Ashleigh Buhai slammed the door shut in the style of a champion.
Buhai’s third shot to Muirfield’s par-five 17th had sailed long of the green. She had a dicey chip remaining. Not content to trickle her ball towards the hole and save par, the South African holed out for a birdie four. Her lead had been extended to six shots.
Only elements of the past are against Buhai in this Women’s Open. She has just one top 10 in 42 previous major starts, that coming in this very event in 2019. Buhai led by three at the halfway point of that tournament. Yet since this event was elevated to major status, nine players have held a 54-hole lead of three strokes or more. All have prevailed on Sunday. A dropped shot at the last means Buhai’s advantage was cut to five – she sits at 14 under par – but she has one hand and four fingers on the trophy. “You have to pat yourself on the back after that score in those conditions,” she said. “That is one of the best rounds I have ever played.
“You can never be comfortable in a major, whether you are leading or not. They say big leads are often more difficult. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing.” Buhai revealed she was sent a message of encouragement by Gary Player, her compatriot who won the 1959 Open at Muirfield.
The sad thing was, precious few people were around to see Buhai and co finish their rounds. Galleries were distressingly sparse as play rumbled towards conclusion; the consequence, perhaps, of tee-off times after three o’clock in the afternoon for the leaders. This represented a bad look for a tournament which has been elevated in status by the R&A.
Buhai’s third round of 64 was without a bogey until she left a putt short on the final green. She reached the turn in just 31, having collected four shots in a row from the 4th. Hinako Shibuno, who shot 66, and Chun In-gee, who made a 70, are joint second. Inbee Park, seeking an eighth major win, is alongside Madelene Sagström at seven under.
Minjee Lee, the US Open champion, lurks at minus five after a 70. “I think with the position I’m in and considering how many shots back I am, I can be aggressive,” Lee said. “I think I can just try and make birdie every single hole. I think that’s pretty much what I can do, if I can go for the pin. I think with Ash, probably she has contended a few times but it’s the British Open and the final group, so I’m sure she’ll have a few nerves.”
In a week of Muirfield firsts, there was another at the start of day three’s play. Lindsey Garden, a female member at a course once infamously an all-male domain, played alongside Lydia Hall because of an odd number of players having made the cut. Garden, who holds a 1.6 handicap and is a former Scotland international, admitted to being “very nervous” on the opening tee.
“It’s fantastic,” she added of her membership at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. “I’ve been a member a year. It’s just been a great year because since I’ve been a member, we have known we are hosting the Women’s Open. There has been lots of prep for that. There’s been some really fun stuff around that, media days and some interviews with various media people talking about what is it like to be a woman member at Muirfield, it’s the same as it is for a man. We’re equal.” Changed days indeed.