Hinako Shibuno has rather more in mind than making a successful defence of her title in the forthcoming AIG Women’s Open at Troon. “I want to win all of the LPGA majors as soon as I can,” the 21-year-old from Japan said. To make that possible, she plans to switch to the LPGA Tour sooner rather than later.
This most engaging of competitors needed a bit of recovery time after winning at Woburn last year in her first competitive event outside of Japan. That Sunday afternoon, she had just a handful of Japanese press people at her post-tournament news conference as she spoke of how she wanted nothing so much as a quiet life once the tournament was behind her. It was not what she got. When she stepped off her plane in her home nation, there were some 1,000 media people waiting for her and they weren’t about to go away.
Such was Shibuno’s superstar status that these dedicated media folk started to follow her morning, noon and night. Meanwhile, every tournament she entered was a sell-out.
“I did go through a difficult time,” she confessed to GGP through an interpreter. “I’m back to laughing now because smiling and laughing are an important part of my life. Also, of course, they bring joy to other people.”
By way of illustrating those twin benefits, you only have to go back to her final hole at Woburn. First, she loosened herself up with a cheerful crack to her caddie as to what might happen if she shanked her second into the woods. Minutes later, after she holed the 18-footer she needed for her winning birdie, her peel of giggles spread round the stands and the whole of the Woburn estate. Even the Rules men and women from the R&A were not immune. As was noted at the time, they were laughing themselves while no doubt wondering what on earth was going on with their Royal and Ancient game.
As a follow-up query, the writers wanted to know what she would do with her prize money. After asking how much it was – $675,000 – she had another delightfully different reply: “It will buy me enough treats till I die.”
Just as Renato Paratore reminded people that golf didn’t have to take forever with his recent win at Close House, so Shibuno sent out the equally important message that golf could be a bundle of fun.
In the immediate wake of that triumph, she was offered a player’s card for the LPGA Tour and, as everyone knows, she promptly turned it down. In the heat of the moment, the first explanation to shoot from her lips was one which Westerners did not, so to speak, find easy to stomach. Namely, that she would not have easy access to her usual “seaweed and squid” sweets. Almost in the same breath, she said she would find it “stressful” to be away from Japanese food in general.
That Shibuno was even then known as the “Smiling Cinderella” prompted an inevitable question from the Woburn media as to whether the handsome trophy was an acceptable alternative to a handsome prince. The answer was a very definite, “No.”
As a follow-up query, the writers wanted to know what she would do with her prize money. After asking how much it was – $675,000 – she had another delightfully different reply: “It will buy me enough treats till I die.” Twelve months on and she’s still not spent a penny of it. With her sudden fame, a shopping trip would be a nightmare.
All of which goes a long way towards explaining why she has come to think that her 2019 decision to stay on the Japanese Tour was a bad one. She can no doubt see herself having a quieter time of it in the United States (rather like an Ai Miyazato) whilst loving the idea of bagging all five of the women’s majors.
When we were in touch, she acknowledged that she had reservations about her up-coming flight to a Western world where the wearing of face masks seems to have been a major point of contention.
“Japanese people, including myself, feel comfortable wearing masks on a daily basis because there is an inherent mask-wearing culture in my country,” she explained. “So I am feeling a bit anxious and stressed about the pandemic but, then again, I realise that it’s only the defending champion who can do the defending.”
When asked what impressed Shibuno about the golf and golfers she encountered on her Woburn sortie last year, she went straight to Ashleigh Buhai, the South African with whom she played on the last afternoon. Buhai had played magnificently to lead at the half-way stage and had a chance with nine holes to play. However, though she ran out of birdies at that point, that did not stop her from shooting her arms aloft to celebrate her Sunday companion’s success. “I don’t think,” said Shibuno, “that there are many players who can celebrate the opponent’s victory as she did. To me, it was a moment of sportsmanship that showed what sport is all about. To be honest, I only noticed her reaction when I watched the last hole on video and it made me so happy.”
This year Shibuno knows a bit more about what to expect in the UK. Last year, she thought she was heading for a links course when Woburn turned out to be about as far removed from a seaside course as it is possible to get. If anything, it was more like the golf she knows at home.
Having done some research, she is expecting to come up against some challenging weather conditions in mid-summer Scotland.
“So I’ve been practising a lower ball flight and to carry the ball further when I’ve got a strong wind at my back,” she said.
The high-fiving she did between holes towards the end of her last round of 2019 won’t happen in this summer’s closed-door circumstances, but she can rest assured that those who followed her last year will be with her in spirit. She was, quite simply, a proverbial breath of fresh air.
At what seems set to be a key moment in her career as she prepares to switch tours, it was worth finding what, away from Japanese foodstuffs, she would miss the most about Japanese golf.
Here, it turned out that her two favourite things are irrevocably intertwined.
“Stopping for lunch after nine holes,” she said.