Women’s British Open: Hinako Shibuno’s instant impact reminiscent of Seve Ballesteros

Women’s British Open: Hinako Shibuno’s instant impact reminiscent of Seve Ballesteros

A star is born. It was delivered with Hinako Shibuno’s extraordinary victory at the Women’s British Open, where she demonstrated a potential to illuminate the sport for years to come.

During the first competitive rounds she has ever played outside her native Japan, this engaging 20-year-old leaped from being a complete unknown to becoming arguably the hottest property in the women’s game.

The reason is not just her thrilling golf game, but the personality that lay at the heart of her Woburn display. She has what golf needs – charisma and character, especially in an era of largely emotionless poker-faces.

Shibuno selfied, high-fived, fist-bumped and smiled her way to the first tee. Never mind the internal nausea she was feeling at the prospect of defending the two-stroke lead she held going into the final round on Sunday.

Despite four-putting the third green, that smile remained in place all the way around the Marquess Course. She engaged with the galleries and they responded, making the Japanese starlet an instant favourite.

In some ways it was reminiscent of the emergence of a teenage Severiano Ballesteros when he finished second at the 1976 Open at Royal Birkdale. Here was someone different, playing the game through the force of their personality.

Shibuno is far from guaranteed a similar career to that of the swashbuckling Spaniard, who won five majors among 90 professional titles. But coming home in 31, ramming in a winning 18-footer to clinch a maiden major and sending an adoring crowd into raptures, that was the stuff of Seve.

It is way too early to gauge her true golfing potential, but it is safe to say she is different and capable of drawing an audience. People will want to watch her play all over the world and they know they will get something back.

In the wake of her Woburn win, Shibuno acknowledged that she sees herself as an entertainer.

“Yes, definitely,” she said. “We play golf in front of spectators and there are many viewers that watch on TV. I want them to enjoy watching golf.”

Being able to embrace attention is going to be a valuable commodity. Victories such as this one propel players into the spotlight and it probably shines most intensely on Japanese athletes.

Hideki Matsuyama has his own dedicated media army that follows his every move on the PGA Tour and former Leicester City footballer Shinji Okazaki received similar scrutiny in the Premier League, even when he was not in the starting line-up.

Imagine the excitement that will surround Shibuno after she emulated Chako Higuchi to become only Japan’s second major winner. Higuchi won the women’s PGA of 1977.

“This will extend beyond golf and sports in Japan,” said Takumi Zaoya, a golf agent who translated for Shibuno last week.

“People who don’t know golf will know about this, and know her now. And when she plays in Japan again, people who’ve never watched golf before will probably want to come see her.”

And it is all the more startling given that the new champion has yet to play the LPGA circuit. Despite two wins on the Japanese tour this year, she came from relatively nowhere to win a major at her first attempt.

Shibuno now has the option of joining the LPGA Tour immediately or deferring to next year. The early indications are that she will return to Japan and take her time.

Despite the inevitable temptation to make the most of this moment, a measured approach would seem the more prudent plan.

She will need careful management because opportunities all around the world will come her way.

Shibuno’s life has changed immeasurably. She is celebrating with an engaging innocence, saying her prize money (£555,000) will go towards a lifetime supply of Japanese sweets. “Enough treats to feed me till I die,” she laughed.

But in time will come many challenges. The two main ones will be to maintain what is clearly a devastating golf game and, as importantly, to keep smiling.

If she succeeds, golf will celebrate the emergence of a much needed superstar.

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