It would be hard to find a player less likely to win the AIG Women’s British Open than Hinako Shibuno. The 20-year-old from Japan is a rookie on the Japanese LPGA Tour and when she teed it up at Woburn Golf Club, it was her first time playing a tournament outside of Japan. Before she arrived, she thought Woburn was a links course (it’s a parkland course). No one considered her a potential winner, not even herself. She came into the week just hoping to make the cut.
But a final-round 68 that ended with her holing a 20-foot birdie putt, Shibuno was the Women’s British Open champion. She finished at 18-under par 270, one shot ahead of Lizette Salas.
There was a hole early on that could have derailed this underdog story. Shibuno who had made four bogeys in three rounds, four-putted the third hole of the final round to make double-bogey. That might have set off a sequence of other mistakes, what one would expect of a young player who had never played in a major before, let alone been in contention. Instead, she birdied the next two holes. She faltered again with a bogey on the eighth hole, turned in one-over 37, then played the back nine in five-under 31.
What also might have unnerved Shibuno was that Jin Young Ko, No. 1 the Rolex Rankings and coming off a win in the Evian Championship the week before, was lurking near the lead the entire final round. It didn’t.
Meanwhile, Salas, who playing with Ko, was having one of the greatest rounds of her career. She even had a five-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole that would then have forced Shibuno to make birdie to get into a playoff. But Salas’ birdie attempt lipped out.
No one would have been surprised had Shibuno not maintained her composure. But she continued to smile after every shot — her nickname on the JLPGA is Smiling Cinderella — and high-fived some of the many fans she gained this week as she walked between holes. Her routine never changed. She spends very little time over the ball, and her pace never changed through to the end.
The winning putt appeared to have too much speed. She lifted the putter and her left leg as the ball sped to the hole and hit the back of the cup and dropped. She had won the Women’s British Open.
The win will change her life. She’s now only the second Japanese golfer, male or female, to win a major, the first being Chako Higuchi, the 1977 KPMG Women’s PGA champion. By winning the Women’s British Open, Shibuno has the option to accept status on the LPGA, effective immediately. Or, she can choose to join the tour in the 2020 season. But for Smiling Cinderella, fortunate to have escaped any clocks striking midnight, she probably isn’t thinking about all of that in the immediate aftermath of her unlikely victory, the stuff of fairytales. And with that back nine and the birdie putt win, the stuff of champions, too.