WOBURN - Sometimes success arrives late, bogged down by the burden of expectation. A dozen years ago, a teen sensation named Ashleigh Simon turned pro after a sparkling amateur career and the anticipation was off the charts. Now 30 and married, Ashleigh Buhai had a front row seat Saturday for golf’s newest young star as Hinako Shibuno put on a performance for the ages at the AIG Women’s British Open.
Buhai took a three-stroke lead into the third round of the final LPGA major championship of the year but Shibuno’s masterful inward nine 30 at Woburn Golf Club put her at 14-under-par 202, two strokes better than Buhai with Sung Hyun Park in third place, three back at 205, going into Sunday’s final round.
Speaking of teen sensations, Morgan Pressel, who won the 2007 ANA Inspiration at 18 but has been winless since 2008, is tied for fourth with Lizette Salas and Jin Young Ko at 206 as Ko tries to join the short list of players with three major championship victories in a season.
At 207 is Carlotta Ciganda as well as Woburn member Charley Hull and Bronte law, another Englishwoman cheered on by the large, enthusiastic galleries. U.S. Women’s Open champion Jeongeun Lee6 is at 208 along with Jing Yan while Anna Nordqvist and Caroline Masson are at 209.
The AIG Women’s British Open has produced the most international leaderboard this side of the Olympic Games. In all, there are the flags of nine nations among the top 13 names on the AIG leaderboard, including five major champions.
Shibuno, who has won twice on the JLPGA this year, including one of that tour’s majors, is making her first trip outside Japan and trying to win in her very first LPGA event. Known at home as Smiling Cinderella, she missed only two fairways and one green on Saturday, playing extremely quickly and swinging extremely smoothly.
“I was pretty upset after the three-putt bogey on the ninth,” Shibuno said. “But after the second shot on the 10th hole, I was able to bring myself back.”
That’s pretty much an understatement. All she did was make six birdies on the back nine and no bogeys as she stormed from behind to take the lead.
“I think it was because I was smiling after my first win in Japan,” she said about her nickname. “I’m also called Smiling Angel.”
Her golf on Saturday – in fact in all three rounds – has been heavenly. Not only has she taken the spectators, the other competitors and the media by surprise, she’s apparently also startled herself.
“I passed the professional golfer’s test just last year in Japan and I really can’t understand why I am performing like this,” Shibuno said, wrapping her words in a smile, a laugh and a nod. “It is a four-day tournament that makes you vomit, and I never want to do it again.”
With the performance she is putting on this week at Woburn – three consecutive rounds in the 60s – it’s doubtful she will ever have to go through that experience again.
Buhai was the youngest to win the South African Ladies Amateur Stroke Play and Match Play. She turned professional the day after her 18th birthday and was touted as the next big thing, a boast backed up when she won the 2007 Catalonia Ladies Masters in her third event as a pro. But success has been only an occasional visitor for Buhai, who’s won twice on the LET but never on the LPGA.
Her remarkably steady play hit its first serious road bump on No. 12 when she made her first bogey since No. 11 in the first round. She made two more bogeys coming in for a 38 and a 72 after rounds of 65 and 67. Nothing went tragically wrong, just a little askew. Fairways were slightly missed, greens were almost hit and putts flirted with the cup but resisted the temptation to fall in.
“Such a good start,” Buhai said. “I hit so many good shots on that front side. Unfortunately, on the back side, just got a little rattled. Kind of felt like I just lost a bit of composure in my rhythm a little bit, but I hit some good shots on the last two holes. A lot of my wins have come-from-behind. I always feel better chasing.”
If Shibuno is to prevail on Sunday, or if Buhai is to bounce back and win, they will have to hold off a bunch of players chasing history. Park is trying to win a major for the third consecutive year; Ko is trying to join Babe Zaharias, Ben Hogan, Mickey Wright, Pat Bradley, Tiger Woods and Inbee Park as the only players to win three majors in a year. And Lee6 is trying to become the first to win the U.S. Women’s Open and the Women’s British Open in the same year since the British became a major in 2001.
There is also a slew of great players hungry for their first major, including Salas, Ciganda, Hull and Law. And then there is Pressel, who has played 262 LPGA events since her last victory.
This leaderboard has as many stories as it has national flags. It’s sort of cool that we get to watch it all one more day.