RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Hinako Shibuno has gotten used to the outpouring of attention since she won the 2019 AIG Women’s Open for Japan’s first major victory since 1977 less than a year after turning professional. As she walked off the course at Dinah Shores on Friday as the clubhouse leader at nine-under par, it became clear that the media apparatus and fans now gravitate to the bright Japanese star wherever she goes.
“It’s very familiar,” Shibuno said through a translator Friday, “that I can see the Japanese media all the way from Japan.”
After carding a six-under 66 Friday to take the outright lead at the Chevron Championship, the 23-year-old first met with Japanese media, doing an on-camera interview with Mitsuki Katahira. The former No. 1 amateur player in the world and six-year broadcaster was there with WOWOW media, a Japanese television station.
Following her on-camera interview, Shibuno walked over to meet with American media and conducted a press conference with her manager serving as her translator.
After that, the star stepped outside the press conference area and held court with the Japanese print media, conducting a 10-minute Q&A next to the practice green and answering whatever questions the reporters posed to her in the sweltering desert heat.
Regardless of how well or where she plays, the major champion always chats with the Japanese media daily. On Wednesday, Shibuno held a recorded press conference in the shade near the practice chipping area, following the precedent set by Ai Miyazato, the former Japanese World No. 1 who retired from the LPGA in 2017.
Even at the LPGA’s qualifying school, Q-Series, WOWOW broadcast Shibuno’s performances live from Mobile, Ala. last November despite the 19-hour time difference in Japan. It’s a level of coverage not seen from the Japanese media since Miyazato’s retirement.
“Everybody loves her personality and they love to come film her,” Katahira said. “I think it’s kind of difficult for her. There’s so much attention on her in Japan, even off the golf course, too. I know she doesn’t say it, but I know it’s probably pretty stressful for her. I think she handles herself very well.”
While the Japanese golf world knows Japanese LPGA Tour winners Yuka Saso and Nasa Hataoka, Shibuno is a household name largely because of her upbeat personality. The media has nicknamed her the “Smiling Cinderella.”
“She’s always smiling,” Katahira said. “Even under pressure, she was smiling and high-fiving. That makes everybody become a fan instantly, I think.”
Clubhouse leader 👋 Hinako Shibuno#TheChevronChampionship @LPGA pic.twitter.com/AF3jUeZh6f— The Chevron Championship (@Chevron_Golf) April 1, 2022
Clubhouse leader 👋 Hinako Shibuno#TheChevronChampionship @LPGA pic.twitter.com/AF3jUeZh6f
That carries over into her media interactions. Shibuno laughed after explaining to reporters that her favorite snacks are Chicken Breast chips that she makes in the microwave. She then waved with two hands at the conclusion, saying “arigato gozaimasu” (meaning “thank you”) to the American media.
The attention follows the star wherever she goes. A fan leaped and fist-pumped in excitement after Shibuno made an uphill eight-foot birdie putt on a par 5. Another fan yelled out “yokatta!” — Japanese for “It was good!”
On the 11th tee, Shibuno acknowledged a fan who told her “nice birdie,” with a smile and a “thank you.”
It’s difficult to see the depths of her fandom from across the Pacific Ocean. If Japan hosted the Chevron Championship, Katahira believes the fans would rival the crowds swarming Augusta National during The Masters, a major on the PGA Tour. As the fervor grows, it becomes more challenging for Shibuno to live up to the demands.
“From 2019, winning British Open,” Shibuno said, “it’s more expectations from fans, so it’s getting easier.”
The fans on-site at the Chevron Championship have been treated to another of Shibuno’s strong major performances this week. Her two best finishes on the LPGA Tour have come at major — the AIG Women’s Open, during her first trip outside of Japan in 2019, and a fourth-place finish at the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open, where she held the lead through 54 holes. Shibuno credits her matured game for the strides she’s made since winning her first major championship.
Now, as she heads into the third round with Jennifer Kupcho and two other golfers just one stroke behind her, she’s embracing the gravity of the moment without getting too ahead of herself.
“It’s very sad to play the final season,” Shibuno said Thursday, “but I wanted to just play well, finish well.”
Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.