Olympic gold is Shibuno's next goal

Hinako Shibuno's victory in the Women's British Open on Sunday and disarming smile had endeared her to many fans and prompted a BBC commentator to describe the Japan LPGA Tour rookie as "a teenage Seve Ballesteros". PHOTO: REUTERS
Hinako Shibuno's victory in the Women's British Open on Sunday and disarming smile had endeared her to many fans and prompted a BBC commentator to describe the Japan LPGA Tour rookie as "a teenage Seve Ballesteros". PHOTO: REUTERS

Japan's Smiling Cinderella has high hopes for home Games after British Open triumph

TOKYO • Whether the slipper continues to fit perfectly as it did at last weekend's Women's British Open, Hinako "Smiling Cinderella" Shibuno is, for now, the hottest commodity in women's golf.

She may have a disarming smile and an interesting swing that sees the rookie turn her double-jointed arms nearly fully, but she is a huge talent and, more importantly, there is an endearing quality to her which is often missing in the sport.

The Japan LPGA (JLPGA) Tour rookie, who until Woburn had been outside her home country only once - that jaunt to Thailand did not even involve any golf - produced one of the most endearing stories this golfing year after claiming the Major on her debut in Milton Keynes.

The BBC's Iain Carter has called her "someone different, playing the game through the force of their personality", likening her instant impact to "the emergence of a teenage Seve Ballesteros when he finished second at the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale".

The 20-year-old Shibuno wore the same megawatt smile as she embarked on a charm offensive upon her return to Japan on Tuesday, telling reporters her next major goal was to win gold at next year's Tokyo Olympics.

At a press conference following her arrival at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, she said she was aiming to top the podium at the Games now that her likelihood of competing has improved dramatically.

Shibuno also revealed that she was still coming to grips with becoming only the second Japanese golfer to win a Major since Hisako Higuchi's 1977 LPGA Championship triumph.

A WINNING SMILE

I thought that you can still communicate with people even if you don't have language ability.

HINAKO SHIBUNO, on her trademark smile, which contributed to her newfound fame at the Women's British Open

She said: "I don't know if I can compete, but I want to win the (Olympic) gold medal because the competition takes place in Japan."

Asked about her trademark smile, she said: "I thought that you can still communicate with people even if you don't have language ability.

"I got to be known by so many different people around the world with this smile.

"I used to think that I'd be satisfied as long as I could compete at one overseas Major during my entire career. This is more than I imagined."

But Shibuno is no flash in the pan - she can do more than just compete. In March, she was ranked 577th in the world after turning professional on the JLPGA Tour last year. Two months later, she became the youngest winner of the World Ladies Championship Cup, before lifting the Ladies Open in July.

Part of her success can be attributed to a mean short game honed by years of playing softball, which remains her first love, as a youngster.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, she claimed "pitching in softball is similar to hitting a short approach shot in golf", adding: "Hitting left-handed in softball worked well in learning to balance myself."

Woburn has since catapulted Shibuno into the public consciousness, with the victory bumping her up from 46th to 14th in the latest LPGA rankings released on Monday, making an Olympic berth much more likely.

Qualification for the Tokyo Games will be based on the Olympic golf rankings, which are formulated using the world golf rankings.

The top 15 golfers will qualify for the Games, with a limit of four players per country, according to the International Golf Federation and the qualification period will be until June 29 next year.

Compatriot Nasa Hataoka, who won the Kia Classic in March, is currently world No. 10.

Shibuno, however, is in no hurry to join the LPGA Tour full time. In fact, she has yet to play on the circuit.

The indications are that she will stay in Japan for now and bide her time, with her next competition being the JLPGA Hokkaido Cup, which opens today at Sapporo International Country Club.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, KYODO NEWS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 09, 2019, with the headline 'Olympic gold is Shibuno's next goal'. Print Edition | Subscribe