WOBURN - The clock never struck midnight for Smiling Cinderella. Playing in her first LPGA event, 20-year-old Hinako Shibuno, exuding a passion that melted hearts and won over minds, birdied the final hole on Sunday to take the AIG Women’s British Open by one stroke over Lizette Salas in a dramatic ending to a sensational day of golf featuring brilliant performances by a slew of players.
Shibuno, a rookie on the Japan LPGA, was the only player in the field to shoot all four rounds at Woburn Golf Club in the 60s. She simply owned the back nine, shooting 30 there twice and then 31 on Sunday for a closing 68 that put her at 18-under-par 270. She now has the option to join the LPGA.
Salas, who had a riveting head-to-head duel with Jin Young Ko, who was trying for her third major championship of the year, had a 5-foot birdie try on No. 18 hit the lip and spin out, settling for a 65 that put her at 271. Two groups later, Shibuno split the fairway then, as her approach shot was still in the air, started laughing.
As she walked toward the green, Shibuno smiled and waved at the appreciative gallery. She then drained the 18-foot putt for the win, her hand going to her mouth in disbelief, once again breaking into a broad smile and playful, almost embarrassed laugh, one of the reasons her nickname in her homeland is Smiling Cinderella.
The only other Japanese player to win a major championship on the LPGA or the PGA Tour is Chako Higuchi, who took the 1977 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
“Arigato gozimas,” Shibuno said behind the championship trophy, thanking the media in Japanese before saying through an interpreter: “I can’t really describe in words what I’m feeling.” Then, with yet another smile and a laugh added: “I’m also hungry.”
This sensational Sunday had more subplots than a Charles Dickens novel. All six of the players in the final three twosomes had a chance to win. Ko, who closed with a 66, was in third place at 272 and took home the Rolex ANNIKA Major Award for best overall performance in the majors.
Morgan Pressel, whose last win was 11 years ago, closed with a 67 to be at 273 with Ashleigh Buhai at 274, Celine Boutier at 276, Carlota Ciganda at 277 and Sung Hyun Park at 278. Nelly Korda and Jeongeun Lee6 were at 279.
With four holes to play, there was a three-way tie at 16 under par involving Salas, Ko and Shibuno with Pressel and Buhai at 15 under. Birdies were simply flying everywhere. Over their first 15 holes, Salas and Ko combined to make 14 birdies on 12 different holes.
When Salas rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 15 she had the outright lead at 17 under par, but that was quickly matched by Shibuno’s 10-foot birdie on the same hole. That’s how it remained until the final hole.
“I told myself, ‘You got this. You're made for this,’" Salas said about her birdie try. “I put a good stroke on it. I'm not going to lie; I was nervous. You know, I haven't been in that position in a long time. Gave it a good stroke. I controlled all my thoughts. It just didn't drop. So congrats to our winner.”
Salas, whose lone LPGA win was at Kingsmill in 2014, was one of those who played brilliantly on Sunday, making eight birdies in the first 15 holes.
“I take away a lot of positives,” she said. “We had a game plan at the beginning of the week and we stuck with it. We fought, every single day, and to play alongside the No. 1 player in the world and to play the way I did, I'm really happy.”
Shibuno was in a fairytale world all week. She slapped hands with the massive galleries between holes and smiled her way around the course, the smiles coming a little less frequently on the front nine when she double bogeyed No. 3 and bogeyed No. 8 to turn in 37. But having already made 13 birdies on the back nine, she made five more on Sunday for a total of 18 in 36 holes.
“I was looking at the board all the time and I knew my position,” she said about the importance of the putt on No. 18. “I was also thinking how I would celebrate,” she said with refreshing honesty. Asked how she would celebrate, Shibuno said: “Eat a lot of sweets.”
Going into the final round, Shibuno had a two-stroke lead over Buhai. Lurking three strokes back was Park with Salas, Ko and Pressel four behind. By the time the leaders teed off under an overcast sky there was a bit of a breeze, just enough to toss a little confusion into shot selection.
Officials also saved the most challenging course set-up for the final round and the early scores reflected that. But the final three twosomes put on a show for the ages. Salas and Ko both played well enough to win on most days, but this was a fairytale finish for Smiling Cinderella.
Shibuno won hearts all week and on Sunday she won one of golf’s major championship, her own version of the glass slipper. Smiling Cinderella got the last laugh.