This ’40 percent’ swing thought propelled Open champ to her first major

Ashleigh Buhai relied on a specific swing thought to stay calm under pressure at the AIG Women's Open.

Getty Images

Welcome to Play Smart, a game improvement column and podcast from editor Luke Kerr-Dineen to help you play smarter, better golf.

There’s nothing worse than feeling a good round start to wobble. It’s all going so smoothly until the slightest mistake, or piece of bad luck, sets the round sliding slowly out of control.

That was the task facing Ashleigh Buhai after making triple-bogey 7 on her 15th hole Sunday at the AIG Women’s Open. Her husband watched on from the sidelines, agonizingly, as she clawed her way into a playoff. And then, on the fourth playoff hole, she seized her destiny. She cozied a long bunker shot — regarded as the most difficult type of shot in golf — to tap-in range, and concluded her round’s comeback with an Open trophy.

Speaking after her round, Buhai opened up about her path to her first major win.

“It’s been a long journey. I turned pro when I was 18 and there was a lot of things expected of me,” she said. “But this game has a way of giving you a hard time.”

Buhai said her work with sports psychologist Duncan McCarthy helped improve the mental side of her game.

“He’s given me the tools, we say, to stay in the moment, and all I can control, and stay away from outcome,” she says. “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.”

It was one swing thought, she went on to say, that kept bringing her back all week. A simple, reliable cue that she turned to after her disastrous 15th hole, and kept her rock solid during all four playoff holes.

’40 percent’

So often when golfers get nervous, things tend to start moving really quickly. They walk faster, think faster, swing faster, even their heart starts beating faster. It all starts to feel rushed, and panicked — not exactly the environment that leads to solid shots.

The goal for players becomes slowing down. Morikawa says he focuses on literally walking slower between each shot. For Buhai, it meant making her backswing less than half its normal speed.

“My thought this week was 40 percent speed to the top because that kept my rhythm and then everything else falls into place,” she said after her victory. “As long as I have soft hands and 40 per cent to the top, then I felt I was in control.”

It took a conscious effort from Buhai to slow her backswing speed so much that it felt like it was only going at 40 percent speed. In reality, though, it wasn’t. It simply brought her back to her normal tempo. More importantly, it gave her something to focus on, that let her stay in the moment, and hit the shots she needed to ascend to glory.

You can subscribe to the Play Smart podcast on Apple here, or on Spotify right here.

Luke Kerr-Dineen

Golf.com Contributor

Luke Kerr-Dineen is the Game Improvement Editor at GOLF Magazine and GOLF.com. In his role he oversees the brand’s game improvement content spanning instruction, equipment, health and fitness, across all of GOLF’s multimedia platforms.

An alumni of the International Junior Golf Academy and the University of South Carolina–Beaufort golf team, where he helped them to No. 1 in the national NAIA rankings, Luke moved to New York in 2012 to pursue his Masters degree in Journalism from Columbia University. His work has also appeared in USA Today, Golf Digest, Newsweek and The Daily Beast.