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Hinako Shibuno, Japan's 'Smiling Cinderella,' commands three-shot lead at U.S. Women's Open

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HOUSTON – Even with a mask on in her native Japan, Hinako Shibuno can’t go far without getting recognized. Her life quite literally changed overnight in the summer of 2019 when she won the AIG Women’s British Open while competing in her first LPGA major. It was, in fact, her first time playing anywhere outside of Japan, and she captured the hearts of British fans with her captivating smile and refreshingly quick pace-of-play.

“I turned from a normal person to a celebrity overnight,” said Shibuno, through an interpreter, of how life changed after that maiden victory.

The woman known as the “Smiling Cinderella” once again finds herself atop the board at a major, this time in her U.S. Women’s Open debut. The 22-year-old carded a 4-under 67 over the Jackrabbit Course at Champions Golf Club to move to 7-under 135 and take a three-shot lead over amateur Linn Grant of Sweden.

There are actually two amateurs in the top three in Texas, including Longhorn standout Kaitlyn Papp, who is among a trio at 3 under, four shots back. Papp birdied three of her last five holes take a share of third with Amy Olson and Megan Khang, two American LPGA vets still trying to win for the first time.

While the board is peppered with names who’ve never hoisted a trophy at this level, three former No. 1s lurk five shots back: Cristie Kerr (69), Stacy Lewis (68) and Ariya Jutanugarn (70).

Lewis, of course, is a member at Champions and is sleeping in her own bed this week about 40 minutes away. The two-time major champion looks and sounds especially relaxed playing a hometown major.

“I just know how hard these golf courses play,” said Lewis of keeping her patience early on. “I know that you can’t make big numbers. That’s really what I’ve avoided so far this week is the big numbers.”

Going home at night to spend time with daughter Chesnee and husband Gerrod Chadwell also helps to take her mind off what’s at stake this week.

“I go home and I’m thinking about Christmas presents I need to buy for which people and what deliveries came today,” she said.

“It just has a different feel for me this year. Doesn’t necessarily feel like a U.S. Open.”

USWO: Leaderboard | Photos

Kerr’s ascent up the board comes as surprise given how uncertain it looked at the start of the week that she would even play. A golf cart accident last Friday at the LPGA stop in Dallas left the 20-time winner battered and bruised. The 2007 USWO champ fought through to a 69 on Friday at Cypress Creek and sits in a prime position to contend for a third major.

The Jutanugarn sisters ­– Ariya and Moriya – find themselves in a share of sixth. The Thai stars missed an LPGA stop in Florida last month after testing positive for COVID-19. The Jutanugarns are two of seven sets of sisters to have competed in the same U.S. Women’s Open.

Ariya won the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open. No sister act has ever pulled off a double-win.

With the 2021 Olympics coming to Japan, a second major title for Shibuno would rocket her fame into another stratosphere. Because she didn’t take up LPGA membership last summer, she’s had to rely on sponsor exemptions to get into regular-season events this year. She missed the cut at the Women’s British and finished outside the top 50 in her other two major starts.

Earlier this year, Shibuno indicated that she had planned to go to LPGA Q-School this fall until it was canceled due to COVID-19. She decided that she wanted to compete in the U.S. after she competed alongside So Yeon Ryu and Nasa Hataoka at the Japan Women’s Open Championship last October.

“I realized that they were on totally different levels with me,” she said. “That incident made me want to go to the U.S. and compete in more high-level tournaments.”

A victory this week would give Shibuno another chance to take up membership.

When asked if she would join, she smiled and said, “By all means, yes.”

original article link https://golfweek.usatoday.com/2020/12/11/hinako-shibuno-japans-smiling-cinderella-us-womens-open/

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