AIG Women’s British Open

AIG Women’s British Open

Hinako Shibuno burst out laughing. A perfectly typical response usually, in this particular instant it appeared at odds with the importance of the moment. Shibuno stood over her approach shot to the final hole at the AIG Women’s British Open. She needed a birdie to win and a par to force a playoff with Lizette Salas but all she could think about, as she confessed to her caddie/coach, was that “if I were to shank this second shot, it would be very embarrassing.”

Fear not, it was anything but, landing safely on the green. Already nicknamed the “Smiling Cinderella” by the Japanese media, now Shibuno moved into A Star Is Born territory. Smile, she certainly did. Fist-bump, high-five, bow her head in respect, Shibuno interacted with the crowd all the while playing at a positively brisk pace and, ultimately, holing an 18-foot putt on the 18th green of the Marquess course at Woburn to win by one stroke.

Not only did she beat the game’s best players on her debut in a major championship, but this previously unknown player won over the hearts of golf fans everywhere. “Every time I make a birdie putt or a par save, a lot of people got up their hands to high-five me, and that was a very happy feeling,” Shibuno said through a translator. “We play in front of spectators, and there are many viewers that watch on TV, and I want them to enjoy watching golf.”

A born entertainer, her golfing instincts could not be more finely tuned as she charged home with five birdies, including the vital one at the last. “I was looking at the board all the time, I knew where I stood. I was also thinking about if I were to make this putt, how I was going to celebrate — enough treats to feed me till I die!” For Shibuno, who closed with a 68 for an 18-under-par total of 270, there is no finer treat than Japanese sweets made from squid and seaweed.

In front of Shibuno, Salas had seen her birdie try at the last lip out from under five feet. She would come up a shot short in second place, her best major result, after a closing 65, tying the best round of the week. The American finished a stroke in front of her playing partner, Jin Young Ko, whose 66 left the world No. 1 in third place and just shy of a third major win of the season and a second in successive weeks. It was a startling introduction on the world stage for Shibuno. This was not just her first major, but her first LPGA event and her first tournament outside Japan. The 20-year-old from Okayama only turned professional in 2018, earning her place on the Japan LPGA, where she was a rookie for 2019. Of the four-round qualifying school, she said: “It makes you want to vomit. I never want to go through it again.”

A good way to avoid a return was claiming, as her maiden victory, one of the circuit’s majors, the World Ladies Championship Salaponas Cup. Another win followed and she arrived in London for some sightseeing at the start of the week 46th on the Rolex Rankings. First to grab the attention was her manager, who dressed in colorful clothing as an attempt to keep her smiling. “Crazy,” she said, “a little embarrassing.” Her double-jointed elbows also became a fascination, though she has yet to establish if they aid or impede her swing.

At the start of the weekend, she was being followed by an ever-expanding gallery of her compatriots. By the end of the week, everyone was enthralled. When she attempted a thank-you speech in English at the trophy presentation, she laughed off the odd stumble and was rewarded with adoring cheers. Was a trophy better than Prince Charming for this Smiling Cinderella? someone wanted to know. “A trophy is a trophy, so I can’t really compare to Prince Charming,” she said, “but this is definitely the most valuable trophy I’ve ever received.”

The last player to win a major on debut was Korea’s Hyo Joo Kim at the 2014 Evian Championship. But the only other Japanese golfer, male or female, to win a major was Chako Higuchi at the 1977 LPGA Championship. “So I was looking online and I did see that it’s been 42 years since a Japanese player has last won,” Shibuno said. “I do feel that I have accomplished something great, but I really don’t know the reason why I was able to accomplish it.” Her timing, with the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 a goal she definitely had in mind, was perfect.

Ashleigh Buhai opened with a seven-under-par 65 to lead on Thursday on the Marquess course that also staged the Women’s British Open in 2016. On a day when 45 players broke par, the round equaled Buhai’s best on the LPGA and contained three birdies in a row from the 14th. It was the first time in the 30-year-old South African’s career that she had led a major. “Today was perfect golfing conditions, everything you wanted, soft greens, hardly in the wind and you could throw it at the pin,” said Buhai. “I struck the ball great and I holed a lot of good putts. Everything was just coming into place.”

Shibuno, in her first competitive round outside Japan, came home in 30 for a 66 to tie for second place with Danielle Kang. Woburn club member Charley Hull was a shot behind on 67 with Sung Hyun Park, Megan Khang and Moriya Jutanugarn. A high-quality trio of Ko, Ariya Jutanugarn and Jeongeun Lee 6 were on 68. In her mind’s eye, Shibuno pictured the British Open at a traditional links course. The parkland setting of the Marquess made her feel much more at home. “It’s really similar to a Japanese course, so I played relaxed and confident,” she said. Her overall impression of the day was simply summed up: “Just one word — surprised.”

A 67 on Friday extended Buhai’s lead at 12 under par to three strokes over Shibuno, who added a 69. Buhai only made one birdie on the front nine but did not drop a shot all day and added four coming home. “My goal going out today was to get it to double figures, 10 under or better,” said Buhai. “Once I got it to eight, nine and 10 under, I felt more comfortable and was able to put my foot down.” Salas, after an opening 69, started her second round with four successive birdies on the way to a 67 which put her in third place. She was a stroke ahead of Park, Hull, Caroline Masson, Bronte Law and Celine Boutier, who had a 66. Law, the latest English golfer to win on the LPGA, scored a 67 to tie Hull, while defending champion Georgia Hall was a stroke further back with Ko, who had added a 70.

t the turn on Saturday, Buhai, who went out in 34, was five ahead of the field and six ahead of her young playing partner Shibuno. But over the last seven holes there was an eight-shot swing to the Japanese player. Buhai three-putted both the 12th and 13th greens and also dropped a shot at the 16th in a 72. Meanwhile, Shibuno came home in 30 for the second time in the week, capped with a six iron to within three feet at the last. “It’s definitely exceeding my expectations,” she said. “I came here wanting to make the cut, so right now I feel like I’m doing something very incredible.”

Shibuno was two ahead of Buhai, with Park three back and Ko, Salas and Pressel a further shot adrift. The English contingent slipped back over the weekend, while Park, as at Evian, faded in the final round, a 73 leaving her in eighth place. Pressel scored 66-67 over the weekend to take fourth place and hint at a Solheim Cup wild card selection that eventually came her way. Buhai closed with a 70 to be fifth, and although she appeared out of it after a bogey at the first hole, she was one of five players who at some point tied for the lead on a dramatic final day.

It was when Shibuno four-putted the third green for a double bogey — a long-range uphiller followed by two short misses — that the leaderboard tightened up. U.S. Open champion Lee birdied four of the first eight holes to tie but ended up with a 71 for a share of ninth place. Ko had a bogey-free day and made six birdies in nine holes to give herself a chance of back-to-back major titles but could only par the last five holes. The Korean nevertheless earned the Rolex Annika Major Award for the season after the two victories.

Salas made the best start of all with three birdies in the first four holes. Her only dropped shot came at the short sixth, but the 30-year-old Californian, with one LPGA win to her tally, birdied four of the next five holes to lead by two shots. More chances followed but only the one at the 15th, from 15 feet, fell. Over her five-footer at the last, Salas said to herself: “You got this. You’re made for this.” “I put a good stroke on it,” she said. “I was nervous, I’m not going to lie. I haven’t been in that position in a long time. It just didn’t drop, so congrats to our winner. It stings a little, but to pull off a 65 on a Sunday at a major playing alongside our No. 1 player, it’s pretty awesome.”

Shibuno admitted being nervous but feeling better about chasing once she fell behind than she had about leading. She responded to the double with birdies at the fifth and seventh holes before a bogey at the eighth. But just. as earlier in the week, she dominated the back nine — she played the front in level for the week and the back in 18 under par. A birdie at the 10th kept her two behind Salas. Threes at the 12th and 13th holes got her level, and a four at the 15th matched the American. That left the stage set for a thrilling finish at the 18th which will be remembered not just by Shibuno but all who saw it.


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