You’ve never seen a player clap so vigorously on the first tee for an opponent. Or walk down a rope-line with both hands outstretched, high-fiving every fan within arm’s length on Sunday at a major. You’ve never seen a player have more fun competing in what’s supposed to be a bubbling cauldron of pressure.
Hinako Shibuno wasn’t just a breath of fresh air at the AIG Women’s British Open. She was a blast of sheer delight.
British fans were captivated by the speedy player with the double-jointed arms and a sweet tooth who never stopped smiling. They rose to their feet and roared when she drained an 18-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to slip past American Lizette Salas by a single stroke on a day of riveting golf. It was a fairy-tale finish for the ages by a player nicknamed the “Smiling Cinderella” by Japanese media.
Competing outside of her native Japan for the first time, Shibuno simply wanted to make the cut in her LPGA debut. Instead, she pulled off one of the most improbable victories in major championship history, overcoming an early four-putt to post a 4-under 68 at Woburn’s Marquess Course, holding off a host of proven winners while her manager looked on dressed like a clown.
Indeed, parts of Shibuno’s story seemed almost too good to be true.
“I can’t really describe with words right now what I’m feeling,” she said during her winner’s press conference through a translator. “I’m also hungry, and a little nauseous at the same time.”
The 20-year-old’s endearing personality extended beyond her brilliant smile – she’s honest and funny too. Standing in the 18th fairway with her coach/caddie, Shibuno broke up laughing while waiting to hit her approach shot.
“If I were to shank this second shot,” Shibuno told him, “it would be very embarrassing.”
Few champions would admit to such a thing.
Salas, seeking her first major title, suffered a cruel lip-out from 5 feet for birdie on the 18th to card the day’s low round of 7-under 65. Shibuno topped the field at 18-under 270.
“Yeah, I told myself, ‘You got this; you’re made for this,’ ” said Salas of her birdie effort on the 72nd hole. “I put a good stroke on it. I’m not going to lie; I was nervous. You know, I haven’t been in that position in a long time. Gave it a good stroke. I controlled all my thoughts. It just didn’t drop. So congrats to our winner.”
Jin Young Ko looked to become only the seventh player – male or female – to win three majors in the same season. The world No. 1 finished two shots back alone in third and secured the Rolex Annika Major Award for 2019. Ko, winner of the ANA Inspiration and last week’s Evian Championship, said she felt the pressure on Sunday but welcomed it.
“I’m just looking forward next year at the majors,” she said.
Morgan Pressel’s fourth-place finish boosted her chances of getting a spot on Juli Inkster’s U.S. Solheim Cup team. This marked Pressel’s best finish at a major since 2015.
“I was out here trying to win major championships,” said Pressel. “Solheim Cup, it is what it is.”
Just last year Shibuno was competing on the Step-Up Tour, a developmental circuit for the Japan LPGA. The JLPGA rookie won an JLPGA major in May, the first of two victories on that tour before making her major debut at the Women’s British.
Her victory gives the Japanese sensation the option to join the LPGA for the rest of 2019 or defer to 2020. If she decides to take up membership next January, she’ll have a one-year exemption. Shibuno says she’s staying put in Japan for now.
Chako Higuchi, winner of the 1977 KPMG Women’s PGA, is the only other Japanese player to win a major – male or female.
Asked how she might spend her winner’s check, Shibuno, after inquiring how much she’d won ($675,000), said: “Enough treats to feed me til I die.”
And then she flashed that million-dollar smile.
Shibuno delivered her winner’s speech on the 18th green in English, erupting into giggles when she stumbled over a word. The gallery ate it up.
Later, when she’d finished taking questions from the English-speaking press, organizers brought in a variety of sandwiches and cakes for her to munch on while the Japanese media gathered ’round to begin their long Q&A session. The champion raised a hand in celebration at the thoughtful delivery.
With the Olympics coming to Japan in 2020, Shibuno’s fame is sure to skyrocket.
“I do feel that I have accomplished something great,” she said, “but I really don’t know the reason why I was able to accomplish it.”
One thing is certain: A mesmerized golf world is already hungry for more.