Ashleigh Buhai’s fighting spirit shone through on Friday when she carded a three-under-par 69 in defiance of the effects of a stomach bug in the third round of the Investec South African Women’s Open Championship at Steenberg Golf Club.
While that paled in comparison with her opening 64 and her second-round 65, she was able to overcome an opening bogey, make three birdies in the next four holes, and then hang tough in the face of the illness to finally make another birdie on the last hole of the day.
That left her four clear of her pursuers ahead of the final round of the tournament co-sanctioned by the Sunshine Ladies Tour and the Ladies European Tour.
“There’s a bit of a bug going around this week, and some of the players have got it,” said Buhai. “Unfortunately, I was one of them and I was up from 2:30 this morning. To get through today and shoot under par is pretty good and I’m very proud of myself.”
That string of 12 consecutive grinding pars from the 6th until the 17th came as her putter, which had been so hot for the first two rounds, cooled down significantly. She burned the edges enough to keep her interested, and the pars were enough to keep her ahead of Germany’s teenaged Chiara Noja and Spaniard Ana Pelaez Trivino.
Trivino carded a fine six-under-par 66 to climb to her share of third on 14 under through 54 holes, and Noja, who was Buhai’s closest pursuer at halfway, had a closing stretch meltdown of three bogeys in five holes from the 13th to the 17th as she signed for a three-under 69, having shared the lead with Buhai after the 12th hole.
Noja’s downfall seemed to start when she left an eagle putt on 12 just short, and, although she made birdie to draw level with Buhai, she seemed to be too keen to press home what she perceived to be an advantage. She pulled driver on the par-four 13th, a bold play that seemed destined for trouble when she pushed it right.
“Me trying to carry that bunker is not even an option,” said Buhai of the surprising play by Noja. “To be honest, if you hit it over that bunker, there’s no space anyway. I hit seven-wood, wedge downwind the way the hole played today, so I don’t really see the play.
“But that was a little opening and then, I thought if I could make my birdie putt there, it could be a two-shot swing. I hit a good putt, but it didn’t drop – story of my day!”
Noja then three-putted for bogey on the 15th, found the greenside bunker on the par-three 17th and was unable to get it up and down from there, and couldn’t make the most of a birdie chance on 18.
“I think I played a lot better than I scored,” said Noja. “Obviously, I’m a little sick and I got a little sloppy and tired. On the back nine, I could really feel it. I was just trying to get across 18 and go to sleep and recover for tomorrow and try to keep myself in contention as much as possible. I’m really gutted that putt on 18 didn’t drop because I hit it and thought it was going in.”
Behind the leading three, last year’s runner-up Magdalena Simmermacher from Argentina showed her class again with a second-consecutive five-under-par 67 taking her to fourth on 13 under. She was one clear of Alessandra Fanali of Italy, who also signed for a 67, and Sweden’s Johanna Gustavsson, who had a 69 to move to nine under and a share of fifth.
South Africa’s Casandra Alexander parlayed a hole-in-one on the second into a two-under 70 to move into seventh at eight under and be the second-placed South African.
Next-best of the South Africans was rookie Kaleigh Telfer, who was one shot behind Alexander in a share of eighth on seven under after she carded a one-under 71.
For Buhai, the chase from Noja was a good bit of practice at focusing on the job at hand in the final round when she sets off in pursuit of her fourth title in her national open championship.
“I like to think the calibre of shots I have will stand me in good stead tomorrow, especially with the wind,” she said. “She’s a great player. When she came out firing – and so did Maggie – I didn’t have the energy to fight back. It just showed that experience is important, and by staying patient, it definitely paid off.”