Shibuno leads by three at US Women’s Open

HOUSTON (AP) – Hinako Shibuno can do without the ‘Cinderella’ nickname, just not the smile. That was bright as ever on Friday as the Japanese star posted a four-under 67 and opened a three-shot lead going into the weekend of the United States (US) Women’s Open.

Shibuno’s lone mistake on a damp, soft day at Champions Golf Club was a three-putt bogey on the par-3 16th at the Jackrabbit course. Her objective was to avoid dropping more shots by being overly aggressive. She wound up with a 10-foot birdie putt to restore her lead over Arizona State sophomore Linn Grant of Sweden.

Shibuno rose to sudden fame in the summer of 2019 when she won the Women’s British Open at Woburn, the first major for the 22-year-old and her first time playing outside Japan. She was called the ‘Smiling Cinderella’, a reference to her surprise performance and an engaging smile.

“No pressure whatsoever,” Shibuno said. “I’m playing a major in the United States, unlike when I was at the British Open, where I feel like I am starting from scratch.”

She looked the part of a major champion at the US Women’s Open, where the forecast of rain and strong wind never quite materialised. The rain was light and occasional. The wind was little more than a rumour.

Hinako Shibuno, of Japan, smiles after putting on the 17th green during the second round of the US Women’s Open golf tournament in Houston. PHOTO: AP

Grant made her US Women’s Open debut two years ago as an 18-year-old at Shoal Creek and was tied for fourth going into the weekend until closing with rounds of 78-81.

She had a 69 at Jackrabbit and will be in the final group. They will be joined by another amateur, Texas senior Kaitlyn Papp, who had a 68 at Cypress Creek and was four shots behind.

The USGA used two courses for the first time because the pandemic forced the Women’s Open to be postponed six months to December with limited daylight. The final two rounds will be at Cypress Creek, the course that previously hosted a Ryder Cup, US Open and the Tour Championship on the PGA Tour.

Six amateurs made the cut, which was at 3-over 145.

Shibuno was at 7-under 135, and only 12 players were within five shots of the lead.

Amy Olson, the 18-hole leader, had to birdie her final hole for a 72. She was in the group with Papp and Megan Khang (69) at 3-under 139.

The group five shots behind included former Women’s Open champion Ariya Jutanugarn and her sister, Moriya, Champions Golf Club member Stacy Lewis and Cristie Kerr, who dislocated a couple of ribs in a cart accident one week ago and wasn’t even sure she could play until the Open began.

Kerr played bogey-free at Jackrabbit and shot 69, and the 43-year-old former Open champion says the injury at least has tempered her expectation.

“I’ve definitely missed shots I would normally not miss because I’m in pain, but it’s actually kind of a nice mental place to be. I’m not happy how I got here, but maybe it’s meant to teach me a lesson, I don’t know.”