Playing golf with a smile on your face? Now there’s a novel idea. Those of you who watched the wonderfully gleeful Hinako Shibuno beam, grin, chuckle and chortle her way to victory in the AIG Women’s British Open at Woburn on Sunday may have felt a deep sense of confusion washing over them. This scribe certainly did.

Let’s face it, for those of us eking out a pitiful existence in the well-populated yet barren environment of remorseless golfing futility, there’s never really much to smile about, is there?

Amid the kind of gruesome swipings, gougings and slicings that would make the barbarous exertions of a medieval pitched battle look like a genteel interpretation of Swan Lake, my face ends up frozen in a tortured, mirthless rictus as great torrents of negativity flood my feeble mind and a shuddering swing tends to display all the elegance and timing of a hurried toilet break at a grotty motorway service station.

In contrast, Shibuno’s unwavering twinkle really was quite irresistible and, in 20 years covering this grand old game, I can’t recall anybody playing with such carefree, joyous abandon under the tumult of tournament conditions at the sharp end. It was a pleasure to be there.

The fact she was bursting into great guffaws down the stretch of a major championship, when the pressure is cranked up to such an extent it would just about give you the bends, made the whole spectacle even more alluringly absurd.


At the end of another Women and Girls’ Golf Week, an initiative aimed at raising the awareness of the game among the good ladies, those involved with the programme could not have hoped for a better winner.

In a pursuit often hamstrung by negative perceptions and sneered at for its po-faced, archaic attitudes, the approach of the effervescent Shibuno was nothing short of revelationary.

As the roaring heat of the title battle intensified, the 20-year-old was high-fiving with spectators, waving to galleries and chuckling with her caddie in a manner that is far from customary in a sport that can often look like it’s going through the process of rigor mortis.

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As she stood over her approach to the final hole there was more laughter and she later revealed, through her interpreter, that she had said to her caddie: “If I shank this second shot, it would be very embarrassing.”

There would be no embarrassment, of course, just more unbridled joy as Shibuno became only the second Japanese golfer to win a major title.

The first was the celebrated, decorated Chako Higuchi, who won the 1977 LPGA Championship and received a ticker-tape parade down the boulevards of Tokyo. Shibuno may get the keys to the Golden Pavilion after her win.

When Higuchi started golfing in the 1960s she was an extremely rare breed in her homeland, but her pioneering efforts led to the acceptance of women professionals in Japan and blazed a trail that would open doors for others.

“I became an emancipated woman through patience, with practice and by wanting everything so hard,” Higuchi once said. “I have done things for my own pride because others think I can’t, and because I want to show people that others can follow.”


Here, in 2019, Shibuno has done it her way too. While many players would negotiate the last few nerve-wracking holes of a major with the kind of doleful expression you’d get with a cow being herded towards an abattoir, Shibuno, who was playing in her first event outside of Japan, embraced and confronted a potentially overwhelming situation with zealous aplomb.

The naivety of youth? Perhaps, but there will be plenty of players who wish they could bottle a bit of Shibuno’s recipe for success.

How often, for instance, have we heard a yearning Rory McIlroy wishing that he could play with a freedom and devil-may-care approach instead of being stifled by the myriad burdens that golf under the spotlight can bring?

Now that she has propelled herself into the pantheon of major champions, Shibuno may have all that to come, of course, and the heightened expectations and demands placed upon her may mean that her infectious joie de vivre gets tested to the full. Professional sport can have a habit of wearing people down, after all.

As Shibuno was making her march up the leaderboard at Woburn, it was interesting to watch the reaction to the crushing disappointment of Lydia Ko, who missed the cut and was second bottom of the standings after a torrid second round of 80.

Not so long ago, the 22-year-old was the world’s dominant force in the women’s game but is now in the midst of a period of toil and trouble.

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That she smiled, laughed and spent ages signing autographs and blethering away with children outside the recording hut, despite her early exit, said a lot about her character. Let’s hope her fortunes change soon.

Whatever the golfing gods have in store for Shibuno, meanwhile, is anybody’s guess but, for the time being, we should just savour the Smiling Cinderella’s style, flair and engaging personality.

Golf, like any other pursuit in which you clatter, thwack, kick or hurl a ba’ around, is just a game. And what gets you into such games in the first place? That’s right, fun.

Once it becomes a profession – or even an unhinged hobby – the fun can disappear but Shibuno’s outlook is admirable.

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

Shibuno smiled. And she made us all smile with her.