Ashleigh Buhai has fired a shot across the bows of all the players in the Investec South African Women’s Open, which tees off at Steenberg Golf Club on Wednesday.
The winner of the title in 2004, 2007 and 2018, Buhai won the AIG Women’s Open last year and has risen to 18th on the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings.
She has returned to South Africa to play in her national open championship for the first time in three years.
Co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour and the Sunshine Ladies Tour, this 30th anniversary of the Investec South African Women’s Open coincides with the 10th anniversary of the local circuit in its current guise, and Buhai knows it won’t be an easy victory lap.
“I know there’s going to be pressure on me this week,” she said. “I think everybody expects me to tee it up and win, but that’s not golf. We can’t guarantee anything. Hopefully, I can just go out there and keep doing what I’ve been doing; stick to my process, my steps, and the outcome will come.”
Amongst her chief challengers is a woman who has dominated the Investec South African Women’s Open to an even greater extent than she has.
Defending champion Lee-Anne Pace has won the title five times, and the tournament is one which she quite deliberately attempts to peak for. In addition, Pace loves the windy conditions which are almost always encountered at Cape Town courses.
She will be a formidable hurdle for Buhai to overcome if she is to win a fourth title.
Additionally, there have been younger players, for whom Buhai has become a role model, if not a mentor, who have emerged over recent times, and are hungry for success at a higher level.
The likes of Casandra Alexander who is a two-time winner on the Sunshine Ladies Tour this year, and rookies like Kaleigh Telfer and Kiera Floyd, will be keen to end their Investec Order of Merit campaigns on a high. And there’s nothing higher for them than this title.
Buhai’s contribution to the growth which has produced this situation cannot be overstated.
“I don’t know how much of a part I played, but hopefully a little bit,” said Buhai. “Obviously it’s fantastic to see how it’s grown, how the sponsors are starting to support women’s golf in South Africa. And you can see it in the trend in women’s golf around the world. All prize purses are starting to increase.”
The Sunshine Ladies Tour played for R1.075-million in its first year in 2014, and the purses this year total R16-million.
“With six tournaments on the tour now, the next step would be if we could get it to double figures at least,” said Buhai. “And also, not just to have February through March, because to be able to play all year around is what these girls need. So, if you have two tournaments a month at least, you know, they will have game time. The purses might not be what they are during this stretch, but being able to play, getting that game time is hugely important.”
Of course, as the Major winner she is, Buhai’s example is one admired by more than just her compatriots. From the ranks of the players from 28 other countries represented in the field, there is certain to be a handful who could challenge for – and even win – the title.
Chief amongst those is the leader of the Investec Order of Merit on the Sunshine Ladies Tour, Lily May Humphreys of England, who won the Joburg Open last week, a tournament also co-sanctioned by the Ladies European Tour.
But Buhai brings the best early-year form of her recent past with her, so toppling her won’t be easy. She finished seventh last week in the HSBC Women’s World Championship in Singapore, following a top 10 in the Honda LPGA Thailand in February and a tie for ninth in the Hilton Grand Vacations Tournament of Champions in January.
“I’ve always tried to play the Investec SA Women’s Open when I could, but the change in the date over the last three years has made it difficult,” said Buhai. “This year, with it falling in an off week, I’ve made the effort to come back, and I am excited to get the show on the road.”