Hinako Shibuno made a heroic return home Tuesday evening after becoming a household name by winning the Women’s British Open on Sunday.
What was awaiting the country’s newest golf star upon her arrival at Haneda airport was a large flock of fans, reporters and TV cameras. A total number of more than 140 reporters from 54 different media outlets came.
“I was overwhelmed because it was more than I thought it would be,” the 20-year-old, who became the second Japanese to capture an overseas major title and the first since Hisako Higuchi won the 1977 LPGA Championship, said of the huge welcome at a news conference at the airport.
Nicknamed the “Smiling Cinderella,” Shibuno continued with a joke: “Right after I arrived in Britain, I wanted to go back to Japan. So I’m happy to be back.”
For Shibuno, winning it all at an overseas major was beyond her imagination. The Okayama native, who turned pro less than a year ago, said that she had originally hoped to compete in just one of those premier tournaments at some point in her professional career.
“I haven’t,” she said, when asked if she has realized how big of a feat she achieved. “I didn’t even think I would be able to compete on the regular (Ladies Professional Golfers’ Association of Japan) tour at my age. So this is beyond my imagination. And as for an overseas major tourney, I was just hoping to play in one of those once in my lifetime.”
Obviously, her accomplishment in Milton Keynes, England, has changed everything. And playing with an innocent smile, even when she was in high-pressure situations, made her stand out even more.
Although she said that she was a little embarrassed to be described as a “Cinderella,” Shibuno realized that smiling is a “universal language” throughout her British Open experience.
“I thought that you can still communicate with people even if you don’t have language ability,” said Shibuno, for whom the British Open was the first tournament she ever competed in outside of Japan. “I got to be known by so many different people around the world with this smile.”
Shibuno said she hasn’t considered competing in another overseas major next year yet. But she wants to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I watch Japan win the gold medal in softball at the Beijing Olympics even now on YouTube,” said Shibuno, who also played softball and baseball golf growing up. “It gave a lot of energy to the country at the time. I, too, want to compete at the Olympics because I want to inspire Japan.”
Shibuno, who has risen from 46th to 14th in the latest world rankings, added jokingly, “I want to win a gold medal because it would be my home games. I’m sorry to say this although I have not been chosen yet.”
Shibuno also insisted that she wants to exceed ¥100 million in prize money in the JLPGA while becoming the money leader on the tour and a role model for junior golfers in the nation.
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