Head in the Game
South Africa’s top-ranked golfer has had her most successful year on the course after making several adjustments to the mental side of her game. By Mike Green
One thing that shone through Ashleigh Buhai’s incredible 2022-23 year was the power of good that following single-minded routines did her. And even when she bowed out of the defence of her AIG Women’s Open title when she missed the cut at Walton Heath in August this year, there were moments where she showed how sublime her game can be.
After hoisting the AIG Women’s Open trophy after a draining four-hole playoff, she went ahead and picked off the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open in Melbourne, and then came home to South Africa for a victory lap which included taking her fourth South African Women’s Open Championship title, and her second as a professional. To put the icing the 2022-23 cake, she took her first US title since she first joined the LPGA Tour back in 2008 when she won the ShopRite LPGA Classic.
VICTORY IN THE USA
Ashleigh Buhai discusses winning the 2023 ShopRite LPGA Classic.
“It’s huge. My goal this year was to win in the US,” she said after the victory in Atlantic City. “I hadn’t won here yet. After the AIG Women’s Open I won in Australia, South Africa, and my goal this year was to get the monkey off my back and finally win here on US soil.
“I’m very proud of myself for ticking it off. I’ve been playing some really solid golf, and knew that if I continued that form, one of these weeks I would be coming in close with a chance to get the job done.”
The emotional roller-coaster that was her triumph at the 2022 AIG Women’s Open at Muirfield was the first time we got a glimpse inside the mindset that showed exactly how she turned oodles of talent into what looks a lot like a golfing machine at times as she got the job done.
“I started working with a sports psychologist, mental coach, someone called Duncan McCarthy in February,” she said after her major victory last year, “and if you told me in February that I would be sitting here, I would never have believed you with the mental state I was in, to be honest.
I had been swinging well for a long time and could not keep myself in the moment. He’s given me the tools to stay in the moment, and all I can control, and stay away from outcome. We get so lost in what can happen, and sure, it’s easy to drift and you’re going to go there, but as long as you bring yourself back, it’s fine.
“I really only have one thought with everything. I have one thought with the swing, one thought with the chipping, one thought with the putting, and I just tried to do that over and over. I know it sounds boring and he says, I know this is getting boring, but this is what creates good results. So when I put it all together, this is what can happen.”
While it didn’t happen at Walton Heath, there were a couple of moments where the Ashleigh magic shone through. That was particularly true with her liquid swings on the par-three 9th, and the par-three 17th, as she stuffed her tee shots close both times. In the end, though, too many putts shaved the hole without dropping, which meant her six birdies during the first two rounds went unrewarded.
She knew things wouldn’t be easy coming in to the championship: “I feel any time I step into a tournament, if my game is there, what happened last year has given me the confidence to believe that I can win if I’m playing well,” she said. “But obviously it’s very difficult to defend, we all know this, there’s a lot of pressure but I’m trying not to put pressure on myself.”
Pressure was something which occupied her thoughts before her Steenberg victory in March at the Investec South African Women’s Open: “I think everybody expects me to tee it up and win,” she said, “but that’s not golf. We can’t guarantee anything, so hopefully I can just go out there and keep doing what I’ve been doing, my processes, my steps, and the outcome will come.”
While the outcome might have seemed intimidating to the bevy of young players emerging in South Africa in an attempt to follow in her footsteps, Buhai was nothing but encouraging to them and to the processes which are in motion around the world as women’s golf grows.
“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 totalled 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 just to not only have February through April, because to be able to play all year around is what you need. So if you have two a month at least, you know, I understand that the purse might not be what it is at these events, but it’s more just about being able to play, getting that game time.”
Returning to play in South Africa.
Game time is not an issue for South Africa’s female amateurs within the GolfRSA ecosystem, but once they turn professional, playing opportunities tail off alarmingly. Outside the Sunshine Ladies Tour, they are restricted to pro-am series and a newly minted effort from the Sunshine Tour to have up to 10 females playing in the same fields as the men at the Vodacom Origins of Golf Series.
Buhai knows how important the amateur environment is for South African women. She won four professional events as an amateur. As Ashleigh Simon she won the 2004 South African Open at the age of 14 and went on to win the 2005 Pam Golding Classic and the Nedbank Masters in 2006 on the Ladies Africa Tour. Before turning professional in 2007, she won the South African Open for the second time. She is a four-time South African Amateur Stroke Play champion (2004—07) and a three-time South African Amateur Match Play champion (2004, 2006—07). Simon competed at the 2006 Rolex Tournament of Champions and the 2006 World Amateur Team Championships.
The path is there, but the foundation for the path is laid by good parenting. “I feel a lot of parents unfortunately push their kid into any sport nowadays, not just golf, because they want them to be these superstars and obviously earn money and all that,” she says. “But you have to have the love and passion for the game, and I think that’s why at 34 years old, I’m still doing this, because I was never pushed into it.
FACTS & FIGURES
The top performances and stats from Ashleigh Buhai’s most successful year on the course to date.
You have to have the love and passion for the game, and I think that’s why at 34 years old, I’m still doing this, because I was never pushed into it
“There’s a story that my Grade 2 teacher called my parents in because I wasn’t quite keeping up-to-date with my schoolwork. I just loved every sport growing up and I played everything… hockey, cricket, soccer, tennis.
“My dad was like, ‘Why are you good at this sport? Why are you good at that sport?’ I said, ‘Well, because I practise.’ He said, ‘Well, same thing with school, you’ve got to do it.’
“I said, ‘Well, I can get everything out of my head but golf. I just want to be a professional golfer.”
“So at that point my dad was like, OK, we can either choose to support it or think that this is just going to be a phase in her life, but lucky for me they chose to support me, when I was only about seven, eight years old.”
Thank goodness for that: “It’s been the best eight months of my career,” Buhai said at the end of May as she reflected on her reign as AIG Women’s Open champion. And, significantly, that period was important to her not so much for herself as it was for young South African golfing girls.
“I could feel that everybody was so appreciative that I had come back to play at the Investec South African Women’s Open,” she said. “A lot of the young girls were excited to meet me who I hadn’t met before because I’ve been out of the amateur game for 15 years. I’m hoping that will spark something particularly in the women’s game in South Africa.”
Walk and Talk
Ashleigh Buhai chats about the changes she’s made to the mental side of her game.
Credits: Tristan Jones / LET / Supplied