Unknown Shibuno Takes British Open

Shibuno Just Hoped to Make British Open Cut

This was the British Open the way it should be. It was possibly the most fun I have had in years watching. Somebody had to win, and somebody had to lose, but I didn’t. The level of golf among the top five contenders was so good that I ended up in a state of admiration for everyone who kept throwing their best at it until the last putt fell. Himako Shibuno of Japan won the tournament, to the amazement of all but her father, whose cheering in Japanese could be heard several holes away.

No one choked, no one threw it away, and no one surrendered. The one we thought might win it, Lizette Salas, fell one stroke short while putting on the practice green waiting for a likely playoff. Shibundo short-circuited that possibility by holing out a good one on the 18th. Every one of the top five had a story going, and a story to bring with them. For Salas, it was a good time to establish her presence as a major star. She played brilliantly, and as the pressure increased, she played even better. If only one of those two or three putts would have fallen, today would have been a different story. Her effort was valorous, and a champion could have done no more, but Shibuno was relentless, and her cheerful demeanor during the most tense part of it almost seemed scary for a moment or two.

Jin Young Ko came in at -16, and was tied for the lead with Salas for a while. Things have changed. Bring up the name of Ko these days, and someone has to answer, “which one?” This Ko has won two majors in this year alone, has been the number one in the world, and plays with a precision only a Swiss watchmaker could love. It seemed at times that she would take her third major, and that Cinderella would miss the carriage this time.

That is what Shibuno has been called this week, the smiling Cinderella. Her jaunty and beaming energy, regardless of the circumstance, never faded. She was even cracking jokes with her caddie coming up 18, and took time to glad-hand gallery members behind the ropes. The old school in me stiffened, and I thought “Hey there! You’ve got a tournament to play – concentrate!” But she was concentrating. She was staying loose as her nature best knows how to do it. I couldn’t find a single word on her as a player profile. All I know now is that she’s never played outside of Japan, has never played in a major, and has  just won the British Open by being brilliant for four days.
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Morgen Pressel came in at -15, but made it very interesting. Still a young player with a lot of golf left, she jumped back in with an eagle/birdie combination. We get emotionally invested in some of these personalities over the years, and I was moved to see Morgan playing so well again. The only outward change is that she has added a good twenty or thirty yards to her drives.

Then there was Ashley Buhai of South Africa. I cheered for her first round, because I didn’t think I’d see her on the board at the next one – wrong. She made the Open count with four strong days, and hung on in the top group to the end, never having been expected to be a contender.

It was Shibuno who unnerved me the most. The British press and galleries have utterly fallen in love with her, and her public persona is adorable. Her interactions with the public were generous and heartwarming, and with no other British contender on day 4, the island went in for her all the way. Is she ever going to wake up tomorrow feeling surreal.

One sad American, also beloved by many, but she will play well again. The maturity Salas has developed is extraordinary. For Jin Young Ko, it is a momentary setback, although one hates to have her setback while contending for the British Open. Morgan Pressel is back in a big way, with a more impressive presence off the tee. And Ashley Buhai? Now that I am aware of her, she’ll never be counted out after one round again.

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As for Himako Shibuno, she may not be the only one to wake up feeling surreal. I’m not sure I believe it yet, either. The year of 2019 was a great British Open that should go down in history as such. Women’s golf scored a big one against the naysayers, and I’m sorry for any golf lover who didn’t see it.

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