WOBURN, England – Hinako Shibuno walked into the interview room on Saturday night and sat down in the first row. She knew better, of course, but was making light of being in the press room for the first time at a major. She eventually stepped onto the dais, took a seat and leaned into the microphone, testing it with an oh-so-quiet “Hello” as media members began to take their seats.
Only last year Shibuno passed a playing test in Japan, a four-round event that made her want to vomit. She has absolutely no idea how she went from the Step-Up Tour, Japan’s developmental circuit, to leading the AIG Women’s British Open in less than a year’s time.
“I really can’t understand why I’m performing at this level,” she said through an interpreter.
Remarkably, Shibuno has never played in an LPGA event before, let alone a major. In fact, she has never before competed outside Japan.
Women’s British Open: Leaderboard.
Yet here she is, a 20-year-old with a smile that could light up all of Britain leading the Women’s British Open by two strokes. It’s no wonder they call her the “Smiling Cinderella.”.
Early on at Woburn Golf Club, South Africa’s Ashleigh Buhai built her lead to five on Saturday before faltering down the stretch with three bogeys in the course of five holes. Shibuno made the most of it, carding a 30 on the back nine to post a 67, moving her to 14-under 202 for the tournament.
Shibuno, who took time on the 18th to sign her glove for a young fan along the ropes, has a couple of heavy-hitters behind her in world No. 1 Jin Young Ko (10 under) and No. 2 Sung Hyun Park (11 under). Americans Morgan Pressel and Lizette Salas join Ko at 10 under in a share of fourth.
Ko is looking to become only the seventh player – male or female – to win three majors in one season. She won last week’s Evian Championship along with the ANA Inspiration earlier this spring.
Shibuno’s only other time spent outside of Japan was for training in Thailand. Before coming to Woburn, she toured London and particularly enjoyed the mummies at the British Museum, Westminster Abbey and the street performers.
Her rise to No. 46 in the Rolex Rankings came courtesy of winning a major title on the JLPGA in May for the first of two victories this season.
“The nervousness, I can’t really compare the two,” she said of this major to the one in Japan.
Two things about Shibuno that stand out in particular are her manager and her left arm at address.
When asked on Friday if she was double-jointed, Shibuno smiled wide and held her arms out to show that her elbows could easily touch.
Does that help her golf game?
“Nothing,” she said, laughing.
Sunny skies and plenty of Brits on the board led to a generous gallery on the Marquess Course.
Shibuno’s manager, however, stood out in his blue wig and samurai costume. On Friday, he was dressed like Mount Fuji.
Hirsohi Shigematsu said he brought the costumes this week “just for her smile.”.
Shibuno couldn’t help but laugh as she called them “a little embarrassing.”.
Shigematsu said Sunday’s ensemble will remain a secret.
World Golf Hall of Famer Chako Higuchi is the only Japanese player to have won a major title (1977 LPGA Championship). No Japanese male has ever won a major.
With the Olympics coming to Japan next year, Shibuno has a chance to become an overnight sensation.
“It’s definitely exceeding my expectations,” she said. “Came in wanting to make the cut, so right now I feel like I’m doing something very incredible.”.