WOBURN, England – Hinako Shibuno’s life in golf is a parade, and now we’re all invited to tag along.
There may be something transformative in that.
She may have radically changed the nature of major-championship golf with her victory Sunday at the AIG Women’s British Open, at least when she’s playing.
The 20-year-old from Japan won the hearts and minds of England and beyond with what can only be described as a blissful romp to the trophy at Woburn Golf Club.
She reshaped what it looks like to play under intense pressure.
Has anybody ever made it look more fun playing the back nine on the Sunday of a major while tied for the lead?
Shibuno knew where she stood as she marched through a tunnel of adoring new fans to reach the 18th tee, but with her 10,000-watt smile fully radiating, she began high-fiving anybody who wanted a high five.
And after striping her drive into the middle of the final fairway, she seemed oblivious to the mounting tension. She stood behind her bag, lightheartedly chatting with her caddie while waiting for the green to clear.
In fact, she said something that made her caddie burst out laughing.
What did she say?
“I said if I shank this second shot, it would be very embarrassing,” Shibuno said.
A media center full of reporters laughed.
Of course, Shibuno didn’t shank that shot. She confidently carved it to 18 feet to set up the birdie chance that made her just the second man or woman from Japan to win a major. She left no doubt with the putt, ramming it off the back of the hole to beat American Lizette Salas by a shot. She elevated her standing in Japan to sports royalty doing so. She joined Chako Higuchi as the country’s only major champions.
Higuchi won her LPGA Championship back in 1977.
How proud did Shibuno make her golf-loving country?
Takumi Zaoya is a golf agent, married to Ai Miyazato, the beloved Japanese golf icon who retired two years ago. He doesn’t represent Shibuno, but he acted as translator for her during the winner’s news conference. Before stepping on the small stage in the media center with her, he got a text from Miyazato.
“Ai said she was so happy watching Hinako win, she cried,” Zaoya said.
Miyazato probably wasn’t alone.
“This will extend beyond golf and sports in Japan,” Zaoya said. “People who don’t know golf will know about this, and know her now. And when she plays in Japan again, people who’ve never watched golf before will probably want to come see her.”
Shibuno knew the historic impact of her victory. She looked online to see how long it had been since Higuchi won.
“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.”
That answer embodied Shibuno’s unassuming charm.
She didn’t just win the first major championship she ever played. She won the first competition she ever played outside Japan.
The kid really knows how to make an entrance.
You might have to go back 55 years to Julie Andrews floating out of the sky as Mary Poppins to find a star whose introduction was more enchanting.
It’s fair to say almost nobody outside Japan buying tickets to the AIG Women’s British Open knew who she was at week’s start. That didn’t last long. Through the weekend, she quickly built a following, putting on more than a shot-making exhibition. She put on a show, engaging galleries that quickly swelled to get close-up glimpses.
The victory is sure to expand her audience to the United States, if she chooses. With the title, she has the option of immediately taking up LPGA membership for this year and next, or deferring a one-year membership to the start of next season.
Shibuno said she is comfortable on the JLPGA for now, but she’ll think about those options.
Afterward, a reporter wondered what she was going to do with the winner’s check.
“Could you tell me how much I won?” Shibuno replied.
The reporter told her it was $675,000, and then asked again what she wanted to buy.
“Enough treats to feed me till I die,” she cracked.
There was more laughter.
Shibuno knows how to work a crowd, on a golf course, and in a media center.
She believes her role includes being an entertainer.
“Yes, definitely,” she said. “We play golf in front of spectators, and there are many viewers that watch on TV. I want them to enjoy watching golf.”
Her manager gets that, too. Hiroshi Shigematsu is part of the show. He followed her Saturday dressed as a Samurai warrior with a bright blue wig and a toy sword on Saturday. He dressed as a clown on Sunday. He said he does so to keep her loose and smiling.
“We have fun,” he said.
Media nicknamed Shibuno the "Smiling Cinderella” after she came out of nowhere to win the Japan LPGA’s first major earlier this year. She’s a rookie who said the tournament professional exam she had to pass to become a touring pro last year was so nerve-wracking it made her want to vomit. She said she didn’t know if she was going to be good enough to actually make it on tour, but she won the hearts of her fellow countrymen winning the prestigious Salonpas Cup with her buoyant personality.
In England this week, she followed the same script. Virtually unknown here, she won the hearts of the Brits and beyond, her charm easily breaking the language barrier here.
Zaoya said there’s sure to be a hero’s welcome when she gets home to Japan.
“I know there was a big reaction after the first day, so I can't imagine what it will be like after today,” she said. “Now that I've won, I think a lot of the Japanese people will know me. In actuality, I just wanted to live a quiet life.”
That’s one wish the "Smiling Cinderella” probably won’t get with this victory.