Golfers can often display the kind of inscrutable countenance that would make the fizzog of the Sphinx of Giza look positively animated.
Not so, Hinako Shibuno. With a constant, glowing beam you tend to get with a LED bulb, the 24-year-old from Japan famously earned the nickname “the Smiling Cinderella” during her giggling, grinning march to glory in the AIG Women’s Open at Woburn in 2019.
Here at the Freed Group Women’s Scottish Open at Dundonald Links, Shibuno was still smiling. She had every reason to be, of course. A delightfully assembled eight-under 64 on a largely bright and increasingly breezy Ayrshire day thrust her into a two-shot lead over Madelene Sagstrom. Local tour rookie Louise Duncan, meanwhile, was the pick of the Scots on one-under after a spirited late rally.
Shibuno’s smile may remain but it seems the twinkling moniker has gone. “Nobody calls me the Smiling Cinderella anymore,” said Shibuno with something of a wistful, well, smile.
Presumably, the fickle fans in Japan, who tend to shower successful female golfers with the adulation you would get during a ticker-tape parade, have focussed their affections on someone else. Shibuno has not won since that wonder of Woburn while a niggling finger injury has hindered her progress. Living with the expectation that comes with being a major champion in her golf-mad homeland adds another layer of professional pressure.
Hinako Shibuno of Japan tees off on the 2nd hole during the first round of the FREED GROUP Women’s Scottish Open presented by Trust Golf at Dundonald Links Golf Course on August 03, 2023, in Troon, Scotland. (Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)
The Smiling Cinderella may be no more but there is a new nickname. “Lydia Ko called me the Assassin once which I like better than Smiling Cinderella,” added Shibuno. She certainly had her sights fixed on Dundonald yesterday.
Before the wind started to really get going, Shibuno made hay while the sun keeked through some light clouds. Starting on the 10th, Shibuno made an early statement of intent with a birdie on her first hole then bolstered her assault with four birdies on the spin from the 13th. “I surprised myself with four in a row,” she said of that profitable push. Shibuno then finished with a flourish, picking up birdies at three of her last four holes to streak away from the field.
Shibuno missed the halfway cut in last year’s championship here. “The course looked different this time, a little wider,” she noted. It’s amazing what eight birdies can do to the outlook eh?
The sprightly standard Shibuno set was going to be a hard act to follow. Sagstrom gave it a good go and the Swedish Solheim Cup player got herself motoring with three birdies in a row from her 10th tee start. It was an impressive round of poise and patience for a 30-year-old who has taken time to figure out the quirks, curiosities and occasional absurdities of the links game. The fact she has finished fourth and second in the last two AIG Women’s Opens at Muirfield and Carnoustie shows that she is finally getting to grips with it.
“As an amateur, I hated coming to Scotland,” she said of her initial relationship with golf by the seaside. “But my caddie is Irish and over the last couple of years we’ve been really working on it. I’m much more creative on the course and he has helped me see different shots. It’s a journey.”
On the home front, meanwhile, Duncan harnessed the growing gusts to fine effect and was justifiably chipper with her battling 71. The 23-year-old from West Kilbride, who made her professional debut in this event last summer, made an early stumble with a bogey on the first but she remained resolute. “A year ago, I may have squirmed at that, but I managed to hold it together,” said the former Women’s Amateur champion.
Duncan’s finish underlined her sense of purpose. She cracked a 3-iron into 10 feet on the 15th to set up a birdie and, despite a bogey on 16, a brace of sturdy birdies to finish at 17 and 18 stirred the local galleries and a strong contingent of watching family members.
“It wasn’t easy out there, the greens were faster than the practice days and the wind was brutal,” added Duncan of the exacting nature of the test.
Gemma Dryburgh, the Scottish No 1, ignited her day by holing a greenside bunker shot for birdie on the 15th to dip under par. A couple of loose drives at 17 and 18, though, brought her back down to earth and the 30-year-old had to settle for a one-over 73 after a bogey, bogey finish.