Buhai's Open heroics mark golden period for SA's sporting women: 'It's a huge honour'

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  • South African golf has a new hero in 33-year-old Ashleigh Buhai. 
  • Buhai won South Africa's first major title in 10 years at Muirfield on Sunday. 
  • She continues what has been a stellar few weeks for South African women on the international sporting stage.

When South African sensation Ashleigh Buhai put her phone away in her hotel on Saturday night, distancing herself from the countless messages of support streaming in from all over the world, she had a five shot lead after three rounds of the Women's Open at Muirfield in Scotland and was on the verge of history.

By the end of Sunday's final round, however, she had seen that entire advantage disappear and, after a disastrous triple bogey on the 15th, was forced into a playoff against South Korea's Chun In-gee.

It would have been so unbelievably cruel had she lost, but the golfing gods smiled down on the 33-year-old from Johannesburg, and four marathon playoff holes later, Buhai broke down in tears as she became her country's first women's major champion in 34 years.

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It is a landmark moment for South African women's golf, and it comes at a time when this country's sporting women have broken down barriers and ventured into new ground in recent weeks.

Banyana Banyana, led by the likeable, feisty Desiree Ellis, lifted their first ever Afcon crown by toppling hosts Morocco in Rabat on 23 July.

It was a monumental moment for South African football, and the reaction from back home confirmed as much as President Cyril Ramaphosa, sports minister Nathi Mthethwa and SAFA boss Danny Jordaan all committed to closing the pay gap between the country's men's and women's sides.

Then, in Birmingham, South Africa's women took centre stage, with swimmers Lara van Niekerk and Tatjana Schoenmaker leading the charge and claiming gold between them in all of the 50m, 100m and 200m breaststroke distances at the Commonwealth Games.

Just 19 years old, Van Niekerk smashed the Games record in all three of her 50m races.

There was also gold in judo for Geronay Whitebooi, who stormed through the field despite entering the Games ranked 33rd in the world in her category. It was an incredible display of fight and character.

SA's women landed four gold medals at the Games, with the men bagging three, and while that comparison should not be competitive, it does highlight how Mzansi's women have been flying the flag.

Almost out of nowhere and certainly under the radar of the hype surrounding the Springboks and the Commonwealth Games, Buhai on Sunday provided the type of performance that defines a career.

"I'm proud of women in any sport when we're able to dominate and make headlines for a change," an emotionally, physically drained Buhai told Sport24 on Monday evening.

"It's a huge honour, and I'm very proud to be part of that."

Ashleigh Buhai showered in champagne (Getty)
Ashleigh Buhai showered in champagne (Getty)

While Buhai acknowledges that she was given opportunities as a youngster to pursue a career in golf that many don't get - Golf SA and her parents funded trips overseas to aid her youth development - she hopes her triumph makes a difference.

"We don't get enough support, unfortunately, being such a small golfing country," she said.

"I was very lucky that Golf SA helped me out when I was a junior and gave me the opportunity to play overseas, and so did my parents. Not everybody has that opportunity to take the next step.

"Hopefully, this inspires young girls and boys to pick up a club and take up this game. We have some really good up-and-coming amateurs, and South African golf is in a good place, I think."

Often operating outside of the South African sporting spotlight, based in Florida and playing on the USA's LPGA tour, Buhai is experiencing a wave of support from back home right now.

From her club locals at Royal Johannesburg & Kensington to sports nuts on social media, Buhai is being flooded with praise for achieving her life-long dream.

"I was seven years old and telling people I wanted to be a professional golfer. I worked hard, and there have been many sacrifices from me, my family, my friends and my husband to get me to this point," said Buhai.

"It's a dream, and you hope one day it's going to come true, but there are times you think it never will.

"When everything comes full circle in a week like this, it's your time, and it's meant to be, and I'm just extremely grateful.

"The people that are there for the lows and the highs are the ones that are truly your close friends and family.

"When you do well, that's when everybody comes running, and it's great. I'm overwhelmed and trying to juggle it all, but it's a good problem to have.

"I had around 250 WhatsApp messages on my phone this [Monday] morning, and I haven't been able to get to social media yet. To get messages from people from afar, some of them are big in the sporting industry, is such an honour."

When Banyana won Afcon, it had been 26 years since South Africa had won a major football trophy after Bafana Bafana's isolated continental success in 1996.

Meanwhile, Ernie Els at The Open in 2012 was the last time South Africa had seen a major golf champion.

But Buhai, like Banyana, has changed all that.

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