Hinako Shibuno returns to Japan in triumph on Aug. 6. Hundreds of fans gather at Haneda Airport to celebrate her historic win at the AIG Women’s British Open. (Hiroki Endo)

Clutching her AIG Women's British Open silver trophy, Hinako Shibuno returned to Japan with her sights now set on adding an Olympic gold medal next summer to her fledgling collection.

“My goal is to compete in the Tokyo Olympics. I haven’t thought about any other goal beyond that,” Shibuno said at Haneda Airport on Aug. 6, upon her triumphant return home.

“I do want to win the gold medal,” Shibuno admitted at a news conference at the capital’s airport.

However, she added, “I’m sorry, I haven’t even been selected to go to the Olympics yet.”

Shibuno made a dramatic leap in the world rankings to boost her chances of being one of the players who will represent Japan.

With her trademark beaming smile, the rookie pro birdied the 18th hole in dramatic fashion at Woburn Golf Club near Milton Keynes, England, to win the Women's British Open on Aug. 4.

It was a remarkable feat for Shibuno, who turned pro in 2018, to win in her first tournament abroad.

She became the second Japanese woman to win a major golf tournament since Hisako Higuchi won the 1977 U.S. LPGA Championship. The achievement propelled Shibuno into becoming an overnight sensation.

Along with winning fans at home and abroad, Shibuno also earned a new nickname from the foreign media: "Smiling Cinderella."

“I am happy (to be called that). But I think they’re complimenting me too much,” she said, evoking laughter from reporters.

Shibuno said she learned that, “A smile is a universal language in the world” from her experience at the British Open. “If I keep smiling and make an effort, it will lead to a good outcome, I think.”

As testament to her popularity, about 300 people came to the airport’s arrival hall on the sweltering afternoon to give her a hero's welcome.

Shibuno looked surprised at the reception and waved at the fans with a full smile.

She then talked to reporters at the airport and later at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet that I achieved something great. I may realize that gradually,” the 20-year-old superstar said.

“I was very surprised. So surprised that even tears didn’t come to my eyes,” she said, recalling the moment of victory as the spectators cheered her winning putt.

FEARLESS GENERATION

Shibuno’s ascendance has ratcheted up the already heated competition for a spot on the Japanese women’s national team at the 2020 Tokyo Games.

Only 60 golfers will be allowed to compete in the Olympics next summer, and the selection will be made based on the world rankings as of the end of June 2020.

Up to two players can represent each country and region. But a maximum four players will be allowed to represent a country or region if they are ranked in the top 15.

The rise of Shibuno has opened new possibilities for Team Japan to have more than two players.

In the latest world rankings updated on Aug. 5, Shibuno ranks 14th, a dramatic leap from her previous 46th position. She becomes the second highest-ranked Japanese woman following Nasa Hataoka, who is 10th.

Shibuno and Hataoka are part of the golden generation, a group of exceptionally talented rising Japanese female golfers who were born from April 1998 to March 1999.

Their peers are also ranked high on the list, with Yui Kawamoto in 54th; Minami Katsu in 62nd; Sakura Koiwai in 72nd; and Erika Hara in 88th.

Of the top 10 Japanese players in the current world rankings, six belong to the golden generation.

“We are all fearless, and we all hate to lose,” Shibuno said about her peers. “Their performance always inspires me and motivates me to play better."

RIVALRIES AND ROLE MODELS

Pioneers and legends in the world of Japanese women’s golf who have paved the way for Shibuno and others have great confidence in today’s young players.

Hiromi Kobayashi, the LPGA Japan president who welcomed Shibuno at the airport, recognizes that one of the strengths of the golden generation is their fierce on-course rivalries.

When Katsu became the youngest player to win a tour tournament in Japan at the age of 15 in 2014, Kobayashi said, “Other players of the generation were inspired and thought ‘I, too, want to win.’”

“They have worked hard through friendly competition in a positive way and became better and tougher players,” Kobayashi said.

Following Katsu’s success, Hataoka won the Japan Woman's Open Golf Championship in 2016 at the age of 17, the first amateur ever in Japan to win a major professional tournament. Since then, Hataoka has joined the U.S. LPGA tour and went on to win three times.

For the golden generation players, their role model was Ai Miyazato, a hugely popular golfer from Okinawa Prefecture who won nine times on the U.S. LPGA Tour and rose to the world’s No. 1 ranking in 2010. She retired from competition in 2017.

Many of the current players started playing golf by idolizing Miyazato, who is now 34.

“Inspired by Miyazato’s excellent performance, a number of kids became interested in golf,” said Michiko Hattori, manager of the Japanese women’s golf team for the 2020 Tokyo Games. “These kids then grew up with Miyazato as their role model.”

At the same time, the golf world brought in instructors from abroad to improve the playing ability of junior national team members.

Hattori thinks that such efforts have paid off, in addition to the technological advancements in clubs, the golf ball and training methods, which have also contributed to the development of young players and their strong showings at an early age.

Shibuno on Aug. 6 made a comment that exemplifies the ways in which her predecessors have passed the torch to the next generation.

“I would like to become a player like Ai Miyazato, who can lead the women’s golf world,” Shibuno said. “I will try my best to be a role model for junior players.”

Shibuno isn't resting on her laurels, as she will play in the JLPGA's Hokkaido Meiji Cup, which will tee off on Aug. 9 in Kita-Hiroshima, Hokkaido.

She is hoping to win one of the prizes that goes to the tournament winner, courtesy of the tournament sponsor: enough sweets to satisfy her now-famous sweet tooth.

(This article was compiled from reports by Kenichi Kimura and others.)