If you have been waiting for “The Smiling Cinderella” to make an encore appearance on the LPGA this year, your wait is almost over.
Hinako Shibuno, the Japanese player whose 10,000-watt smile won the hearts and minds of so many when she claimed the AIG Women’s British Open title in her major championship debut this summer, plans to play the Taiwan Swinging Skirts at the end of this month.
“I am very honored to receive a sponsor’s exemption for the Swinging Skirts in Taiwan as my second start for the U.S. LPGA this year,” Shibuno said in a statement Monday. “I will try my best again.”
With her Women’s British Open victory two months ago, Shibuno earned the right to claim LPGA membership for both this year and next year, or to defer taking up membership until next year. She has declined to take up membership this year. If she defers, the membership would be for 2020 only, with the chance to retain membership beyond that, based on her play next season.
Shibuno, however, says she still favors remaining on the Japan LPGA next year.
“I am more interested in the U.S. LPGA tour than when I won AIG a couple months ago,” Shibuno told reporters while playing the Japan Women’s Open last weekend. “I would like to play the U.S. tour in the future, but definitely not next year, at this point.”
Shibuno, 20, has until the start of the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship week (Nov. 21) to decide whether to take up LPGA membership for next year. As a non-member, she isn’t eligible to play the CME Group Tour Championship, based on a new rule change in effect this year, with the event’s new $1.5 million first-place prize altering who’s eligible for the big payday.
Shibuno finished seventh at the Japan Women’s Open, nine shots behind Nasa Hataoka, the winner. Shibuno said watching Hataoka, So Yeon Ryu and Inbee Park has heightened her interest in playing the LPGA in an attempt to become a better player. She also said she would like to learn English as preparation to do so.
Two weeks ago, Shibuno won the Descente Ladies Tokai Classic in spectacular fashion, for her third Japan LPGA title this season. She came from eight shots behind in the final round to win with a 64. She is second on the tour’s money-winning list.
Shibuno didn’t just surprise fans internationally this year. She said she surprised herself. Her AIG Women’s British Open title came in her first tournament playing outside Japan.
“Last year, I passed the professional golfer's test in Japan,” Shibuno said on the eve of the final round of the Women’s British Open. “At that point, I didn't even know if I could play on tour. So, I really can't understand why I'm performing at this level, but I think my coach is really helping me.”
Shibuno started her rookie year on the Japan LPGA this season ranked No. 561 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings. She’s No. 11 in this week’s rankings.
Fans at Woburn Golf Club in England knew virtually nothing about Shibuno until she stormed up the leaderboard late in the third round. She was six shots off the lead making the turn on that Saturday but shot 30 on the back nine, with four birdies over the final six holes, to take the lead going into the final round. She became just the second Japanese player to win a major championship, joining Chako Higuchi, who won the LPGA Championship back in 1977.