HINAKO Shibuno – known as the “Smiling Cinderella” – provided a fairytale finish to the 2019 AIG Women’s British Open to claim her maiden Major title in her first tournament outside her native Japan.
The 20-year-old playing in her first women’s Major – closed with a four-under-par 68 at Woburn for an 18-under total, one clear of American Lizette Salas, who earlier had equalled the lowest round of the week with a 65.
Shibuno was tied with Salas on 17-under coming up the last, and hit her approach to 20 feet.
A player so inexperienced would have been forgiven for feeling the nerves as she walked up to the green, but she smiled and waved to the cheering crowds before calmly rolling in the putt for a remarkable victory.
Salas was left to rue a missed putt from five feet after a sublime approach to the par-four 18th, her effort lipping out to ultimately leave her in second place, one ahead of Korean Jin Young Ko, who closed with a 66.
The back nine produced fantastic drama on the final day, with two eagles, 21 birdies and only two dropped shots among the top seven players vying for the title on Woburn’s Marquess Course.
Shibuno was two clear at the start of the day but gave the rest hope when she double-bogeyed the third on her way to a one-over-par front nine.
For the second day running, however, she upped the ante on the way back, and five birdies meant she played the back nine in a combined 11-under for the final two rounds.
“I can’t really describe with words right now what I’m feeling,” Shibuno said.
“Last night, I knew I was going to be nervous, but then also I was thinking that I was going to cope in these situations, and when I was thinking about how nervous I was going to be, starting, I didn’t really feel that nervous.
“I don’t think not many people, including me, like to be in a situation where you’re leading. I feel like it’s better to be behind than leading. That was true today and I was able to play easier when I was in that position.
“I was looking at the board all the time, and knew my position, where I stood in the tournament.”
Shibuno revealed: “That was also true before the putt on the 18th and I was also thinking about if I were to make this putt, how I was going to celebrate.
“Every time I would make a birdie putt or a par save, a lot of people got up their hands to high-five me, and that was a very happy feeling.”
Salas said: “I take away a lot of positives. 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 (Jin Young Ko) and to play the way I did, I’m really happy.
“Obviously I could have finished a little better, and it stings a little bit. You can’t control what other players do.”
Salas added: “I gave it my all and you know, to still come up short, it sucks, but we’ll be back.”
Asked what was going through her head as she prepared to hit the putt on the 18th, Salas replied: “I told myself, ‘You got this. You’re made for this.’
“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.”
Jin Young Ko, going for back-to-back Majors after her win at the Evian Championship, was not too downhearted to miss out on a first Women’s British Open with her third place – having been the runner-up at Turnberry in 2015.
Ko said: “I had a great round with Lizette, who played really solidly, so I tried to follow her out there.
“I had six birdies, bogey-free, and that’s good to me – especially as today is a really important round to me.
“I had a little pressure, but I like that pressure. I felt I can win again because I know about winning feeling – because I felt it last week.”
Local hopes for a British winner faded early in the day, with Woburn member Charley Hull and Yorkshire’s LPGA winner Bronte Law both closing with over-par rounds to finish tied 24th and tied 35th respectively.
Dorset’s defending champion Georgia Hall also had to settle for a share of 35th place after being in contention at the halfway stage.
Thailand’s Atthaya Thitikul won the Smith Salver as the leading amateur for the second-year running.