Hinako Shibuno, the AIG Women's British Open winner that no one saw coming

Keely Levins
Golf Digest

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 her home country. Before she arrived, Shibuno 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 with a final-round 68 that ended with her holing a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th, Shibuno became an unlikely major 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. For the week, she played the back nine in 18 under.

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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, paired in the same twosome as 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, and she had to settle for a closing 65 and a wait to see if her 17-under total might hold up.

<h1 class="title">hinako shibuno AIG Women's British Open - Day Four</h1> <div class="caption"> WOBURN, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Hinako Shibuno of Japan holes the winning putt on the 18th green during Day Four of the AIG Women's British Open at Woburn Golf Club on August 04, 2019 in Woburn, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images) </div> <cite class="credit">Ross Kinnaird</cite>

hinako shibuno AIG Women's British Open - Day Four

WOBURN, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Hinako Shibuno of Japan holes the winning putt on the 18th green during Day Four of the AIG Women's British Open at Woburn Golf Club on August 04, 2019 in Woburn, England. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
Ross Kinnaird

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, hit the back of the cup and dropped. She had won the Women's British Open.

<h1 class="title">hinako shibuno AIG Women's British Open - Day Four</h1> <div class="caption"> WOBURN, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Hinako Shibuno of Japan interacts with the crowd during Day Four of the AIG Women's British Open at Woburn Golf Club on August 04, 2019 in Woburn, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images) </div> <cite class="credit">Jan Kruger/WME IMG</cite>

hinako shibuno AIG Women's British Open - Day Four

WOBURN, ENGLAND - AUGUST 04: Hinako Shibuno of Japan interacts with the crowd during Day Four of the AIG Women's British Open at Woburn Golf Club on August 04, 2019 in Woburn, England. (Photo by Jan Kruger/WME IMG/WME IMG via Getty Images)
Jan Kruger/WME IMG

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.

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Originally Appeared on Golf Digest

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