You wait more than 130 years for a mainstream women’s event at Muirfield then nobody wants to leave. The R&A, which presides over the Women’s Open, was at least spared the embarrassment of a Monday conclusion but such an outcome was in the equation as a playoff between Ashleigh Buhai and Chun In-gee rumbled on to the fourth sudden-death playing of the 18th hole.
For Buhai, glory and $1.1m from a major she looked at one point determined to give away. Chun, who would have completed a grand slam – but not a super slam – of majors with victory here, drove into a penal fairway bunker at the worst possible time and the rest is history. Muirfield, once the epitome of male-only golf environments, toasted a female major champion at ten past nine at night. Buhai beat rapidly fading light – the consequence of preposterously late tee off times to accommodate television schedules – as well as Chun.
Buhai led by five at the start of day four. Those below her on the scoreboard swung and missed all day until the 33-year-old reached the 15th tee, still with a three-stroke advantage. She drove into a bunker, from where she could only play out sideways. The trouble was, this attempted recovery flew into thick rough. Buhai advanced the ball 10 yards, with her fourth shot just short of the green. In no time, she was standing over a 15ft putt for a double-bogey six, which she missed. She was now tied with Chun. Almost simultaneously, Chun came so close to finding the bottom of the hole at the 16th, from 50ft, for a birdie. A procession had turned into an engrossing duel.
Buhai could have regained momentum but her birdie try at the penultimate hole stayed above ground. At the last, the eventual champion rattled her putt for a three past the hole. Par was crucially saved from there but Chun had the momentum entering the playoff courtesy of Buhai’s 75 shots, four over par, in regulation play.
The playoff proved dramatic. On the first re-playing of the 18th, Chun had a wonderful shot from a greenside bunker to rescue a four. On hole 74, Chun fluffed a chip from left of the green. A bogey five, though, was sufficient to halve after Buhai failed to get up and down from the same sand trap.
Onwards to try number three; this time Buhai’s birdie putt, for the trophy, slid so narrowly by.
Next, Chun found a fairway bunker. This was, again, Buhai’s to lose and this time from the middle of the fairway. She carved into the same greenside bunker that had featured previously but played a superb shot to tap-in range. Chun had to hole out from the fringe to extend play but could not.
Buhai and Chun, at 10 under, had finished a shot ahead of Hinako Shibuno. The Japanese player, the champion in 2019, will rue a double bogey at the 14th. A second Women’s Open title was otherwise within her grasp.
Madelene Sagström’s 71 ensured a share of fourth at seven under. The Swede admitted she was “looking forward to some rest” after a testing week.
Ireland’s Leona Maguire signed off with a bogey-free 66, so she finished alongside Sagström and Minjee Lee on the leaderboard. “It would have been nice to get to 10 under,” she said. “I kind of had that total in my head. But this is my best Women’s Open so far and a really, really solid week. If I had had my week on the greens, things could have been a lot different.”
A year ago, Louise Duncan’s top 10 finish was worth nothing whatsoever in monetary terms as she competed when still an amateur. Her closing 69 for a share of 19th comes with the benefit of a £70,000 pay day. This marks just Duncan’s second event as a professional. “I’m over the moon with the end result,” said the 22-year-old Scot. “This is the first cut I’ve made all year, so I’m really delighted with that. Going forward, I’m going to keep this tournament in my mind.” Because of how long it lasted, few will readily forget it.