Catch me if you can. If Ashleigh Buhai keeps this form up, the chasing pack in the AIG Women’s Open here at Muirfield will be requiring snookers to give themselves hope.

On a blustery day in East Lothian, Buhai harnessed the testing, teasing conditions to fine effect and thrust herself towards a maiden major conquest. And what a conquest it would be.

One off the lead at the start of round three, Buhai ended it with a mighty five-shot shot advantage over Hinako Shibuno and In Gee Chun after a thrilling course-record seven-under 64 propelled her on to a 14-under aggregate. It was a terrific performance from the 33-year-old South African.

Her moment of magic on the par-5 17th underlined her majesty. Through the back of the green in three blows, Buhai would’ve been happy to salvage her par. Instead, she dinked a tidy chip into the hole for an unlikely birdie.

What the golfing gods giveth, they taketh away, though. A bogey on the last was something of an anti-climax but Buhai wasn’t going to let that leaked shot ruin her supper.  

“To shoot that score in those conditions, you have to be able to pat yourself on the back,” she said. “It’s probably one of the best rounds of golf I've ever played.”

This is uncharted territory for the three-time Ladies European Tour winner. In 42 major outings, she has just one top-10 finish and that came in this championship at Woburn in 2019.

Two decades after her compatriot, Ernie Els, won The Open here at Muirfield in 2002, and 63 years on from Gary Player’s Claret Jug triumph in this parish back in 1959, Buhai is on course to join a roll of honour of considerable distinction.

Not that she’s getting ahead of herself. On this type of course and in this type of nail-nibbling occasion, a healthy lead can disappear as quickly as, well, a nail being nibbled.

“You can never be comfortable in a major, whether you are leading or coming from behind” added Buhai. “It’s going to be another tough day. They say big leads are often more difficult. I’ve just got to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

If she can do that, then the title is hers. After a sturdy par save on the first yesterday, Buhai romped to the turn in five-under while her wonderfully flighted 3-wood into the teeth of the wind on the tough 14th to about 12-feet produced a super birdie. “Some of those holes were brutal,” she said. “We were playing three club winds.”

In an area where she has performed well before – she’s had decent finishes at Gullane and Archerfield in the Women’s Scottish Open – Buhai is revelling in this golfing home from home. “There’s something about Scotland, I love it and this is my favourite tournament of the year,” she added.

Shibuno, the champion in 2019, posted a 66 to move into a share of second with Chun, who added a 70 to her tally. Inbee Park, the seven-time major champion, is two shots further back.

Too far? “Losing three or four shots is really easy out there so I’ll never give up,” Park said.

It was a tough day for the home contingent as Louise Duncan and Gemma Dryburgh both slithered down the order. Duncan, tucked inside the top 20 at the start of the day, dropped into a share of 41st after a three-over 74 for a one-over tally. Dryburgh, meanwhile, was left propping up the field after a ruinous run of five bogeys to finish in a 77 for eight-over.

In an historic week for Muirfield, there was another moment of significance when one of the first female members of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh golfers ended up playing in the championship.

Lindsey Garden, a former Scotland amateur internationalist who can still hit a good ba’, was drafted in as marker for Lydia Hall.

“I didn’t embarrass myself off the first tee,” she said with a smile. “If I had topped it there, I would have swapped places with anyone.”

As one of the Honourable Company’s 20 female members – the first women were admitted in 2019 – Garden added: “Being a member here is just the same as it for a man. We’re equal.”

As for the frontrunning Buhai? Well, she had no equal yesterday