On the front nine of the third round of the AIG Women's British Open, it seemed as though Hinako Shibuno finally became aware of where she was and what she was doing. Not that making two bogeys in five holes is a total meltdown, but it was more in line with the type of golf one might expect from one who was playing a tournament outside her home country of Japan for the first time.
Until then, she'd made just two bogeys in the first two rounds and was in second place. A Japan LPGA rookie, Shibuno shot a one-over 37 on the front nine Saturday, and given her inexperience, seemed likely to head down the leader board.
Instead, she did the opposite.
Shibuno made six birdies on the back nine, including birdies on 17 and 18, to shoot 30 for a score of five-under-par 67 and a two-stroke lead over Ashleigh Buhai of South Africa. For a player who showed up at Woburn Golf Club thinking it was a links golf course and hoping only to make the cut,, Shibuno now has a chance to win.
"I think it's really similar" to Japanese courses, Shibuno said of the parkland course after playing the first round. "So I really played relaxed and confident."
Shibuno, 20, has won twice on the JLPGA this year, but a third victory, in her first major, will be significantly more difficult with three major champions among those in close pursuit. Sung Hyun Park, winner of the 2017 U.S. Women's Open and the 2018 KPMG Women's PGA Championship, is at 11 under, three shots behind Shibuno. Morgan Pressel, the 2007 ANA Inspiration winner, and Jin Young Ko, the winner of the ANA Inspiration in April and the Evian Championship last week are four back.
If Shibuno was feeling the pressure of leading a major, she was not showing it. She smiles constantly while she plays, part of what earned her the nickname the Smiling Cinderella. As she walked to the 18th tee on Saturday, she paused to take a selfie and sign an autograph for a young fan. Maybe there's something to be said for showing up at a major not knowing anything about the course that creates freedom from expectations.
Sunday will be interesting however it turns out for the Smiling Cinderalla, maybe even a fairytale ending for her.