Friday's golf: No longer a surprise, Shibuno leads by 3 at U.S. Women’s Open

Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Houston — Hinako Shibuno can do without the “Cinderella” nickname, just not the smile. That was bright as ever Friday as the Japanese star posted a 4-under 67 and opened a three-shot lead going into the weekend of the U.S. 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.

Hinako Shibuno smiles after putting on the 17th green during the second round of the U.S. Women's Open.

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 U.S. Women’s Open, where the forecast of rain and strong wind never quite materialized. The rain was light and occasional. The wind was little more than a rumor.

Grant made her U.S. 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 Saturday. 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, U.S. 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.”

Even winning a major championship last year wasn’t enough for Shibuno to take up LPGA Tour membership. She felt she was too young, too inexperienced, and needed more work on the Japan LPGA.

The plan was to wait until the end of the year and go through the LPGA’s version of qualifying school. That was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The only path now is to win the Open.

Asked if she would join the LPGA this time, Shibuno smiled – of course – and said, “By all means, yes.”

She also had to contend with instant fame in Japan, where women’s golf often gets higher TV ratings than the men.

“I turned from a normal person to a celebrity overnight, and I don’t know how to explain it, but I feel like I’m acting a good person,” she said through a translator. “In Japan, even though I was wearing a mask, people recognized me. Of course, that’s the purpose of playing golf professionally. But it’s more difficult for me to go out to dinner than before.”

Papp already has one USGA title to her name when she teamed with Texas teammate Hailee Cooper to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Four-Ball in 2016. She is a three-time All-American for the Longhorns, and assistant coach Kate Golden is on her bag for the week. She finished with two birdies, chipping in on No. 17 at Cypress Creek.

“A good confidence booster going into the weekend,” she said.

Jin Young Ko, the No. 1 player in the world, had a 70 and made the cut with two shots to spare, leaving her eight shots behind. Women’s PGA champion Sei Young Kim had a 69 and was six shots behind.

Nelly Korda, the No. 3 player in the world who hasn’t competed in two months because of back pain, was among those who missed the cut. That list included Lexi Thompson and Mirim Lee, who won the ANA Inspiration in September.

PGA Tour

Kevin Na and Sean O’Hair teamed to shoot a 16-under 56 in the scramble format to take the first-round lead in the QBE Shootout.

Na and O’Hair had two eagles and 12 birdies on the Tiburon Golf Club’s Gold Course. O’Hair won the unofficial PGA Tour event in 2012 with Kenny Perry and 2017 with Steve Stricker.

“It felt pretty easy today just watching him putt and make everything he looked at,” O’Hair said. “Just kind of kept the momentum going. There was a couple putts that were crucial I think to do that.”

They eagled the par-5 sixth and 17th.

“My job was to just put it in play, and Sean hit a lot of bombs out there, was 30, 40 yards ahead of me,” Na said. “It was nice to hit a lot less club than I normally do. And he hit some great shots. His ball-striking was great. He made a good amount of putts. He was the one that always went first and I was able to see the line and I felt pretty good with the putter today.”

Ryan Palmer and Harold Varner III were second. They birdied 13 of the first 14 holes – only missing on the par-3 fifth – and added birdies on the final two holes.

“It’s a fun, good time out there,” Palmer said. “We both putt the ball well and we were able to shoot a low one.”

The all-rookie team of Lanto Griffin and Mackenzie Hughes matched Harris English and Matt Kuchar at 58.

Defending champions Rory Sabbatini and Kevin Tway were at 59 with Cameron Champ and Tony Finau.

Ryder Cup captain Stricker and Daniel Berger were tied for seventh at 60.

The 12 teams will play modified alternate shot in the second round and better ball Sunday.

“Tomorrow’s a tough format, the toughest format, but I think as long as we just keep it in play and make a few putts, we’ll be right there come Sunday,” O’Hair said.

European Tour

Race to Dubai leader Patrick Reed shot an 8-under 64 to take a two-stroke lead after the second round of the European Tour’s season-ending World Tour Championship.

Reed, looking to become the first American to win what was formally known as the Order of Merit title, made nine birdies to take the lead at 10 under at Jumeirah Golf Estates.

Matt Fitzpatrick is two strokes behind after back-to-back rounds of 68. The Englishman, the projected No. 2 in the Race to Dubai rankings, mixed seven birdies with three bogeys.

Laurie Canter (66) and Tyrell Hatton (68) shared third place at 7 under, while 2017 Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood (69) shared fifth place at 6 under.

Reed had an opening 70 but started strong on Friday with five birdies on the front nine. He bogeyed the 12th hole.

“Any time you shoot 8-under par you’re always happy,” Reed said. “I feel like today I got off to a little better start than I did yesterday and the putter was working a little bit.”

Reed said he “tightened it up” after a few iron shots fell short on Thursday.

“I was able to hit the ball a little closer, give myself more opportunities and seeing the lines a little better today,” he said.

The race to be Europe’s No. 1 golfer in the 2020 season is wide open because there are so many points at stake in Dubai.

Fitzpatrick, who won in Dubai in 2016, said he loves the course and that he’s a better player today.

“Obviously, I know what it takes,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s four years ago now. But things change, my game changes, different swing thoughts. Honestly, after the first two days I don’t want to jinx myself, touch wood here, but I definitely feel like my swing was way better these first two days than it was the year I won.”

Collin Morikawa (70), the U.S. PGA Championship winner, is eight strokes back, tied for 21st.