• Grandest gesture

    Ashleigh Buhai
    Grand gesture

    They say a picture tells a thousand words.

    In that case, stop reading right now and concentrate on the above moment when Hinako Shibuno sunk the putt to win the Women’s British Open at the age of 20.

    Making par at the final hole of the tournament would have seen Shibuno fall into a playoff with American Lizette Salas at 17 under, but the fearless Japanese player doesn’t deal in pars.

    She holed the near-20-footer for the fifth birdie of a back nine completed in 31. In the third round she’d come home with a loop of 30, including six birdies. ‘I feel like I’m going to vomit,’ Shibuno said afterwards, talking about the jangling nerves that she had managed to keep concealed throughout the tournament.

    But, let’s return to the picture. I immediately noticed when watching live on SuperSport how the 30-year-old Ashleigh Buhai, who had led through halfway and was two back going into the final round, responded to her opponent’s birdie putt. Look at the picture again. Her hands shoot upwards in spontaneous celebration almost as quickly as Shibuno’s – and a couple of seconds quicker than anyone in the watching gallery around the 18th green.

    I have to admit that I can’t recall a beaten opponent celebrating, in that frozen moment, the success of the winner. Sure, Buhai had slipped to fifth spot on the leaderboard after going into the weekend with realistic ambitions of winning her first Major, but it was an act of ‘sportsmanship’ that showed what sport is all about.

    Shibuno was imperious all week and held her nerve for a final-round 68, with Salas carding a charging 65 to join her at the top of the leaderboard as she watched the final pairing putt out from the clubhouse.

    All through sport the beaten opponent congratulates the winner, the biggest examples of this coming in the boxing ring, where two warriors have knocked all sorts of lumps out of one another, trying to render one another unconscious for more than 45 minutes and then immediately embracing in a mutual display of respect.

    At the end of a tennis match, the two players meet at the net and (usually) offer their thanks for the match and wish the winner well on their next assignment. Those who take part in sports like rugby, football, cricket, netball and hockey shake hands as a tradition at the end of their encounter, but Buhai’s joy for Shibuno is on a different level. She also immediately strode across the green to high five the new champion. It was a special moment, a snapshot of how any sport should be contested. And this was in a Major, not an afternoon club competition.

    This has been a good year for women’s sport. Football’s Women’s World Cup attracted bigger live television viewerships in the United Kingdom than the men’s Cricket World Cup, played at the same time. It is true, though, that the former was on free-to-air TV while the latter was on subscription channel Sky.

    Netball’s World Cup was well received and tennis saw Simona Halep take down Serena Williams in the Wimbledon tennis final, and at Woburn golf joined the party. Shibuno’s success made her the 17th golfer to win a women’s Major out of the last 20 played; only Ko Jin-Young (who won two of the five in 2019), Ariya Jutanugarn and Park Sung-hyun have won more than once in those 20.

    In the last 20 men’s Majors there have been 15 different winners; only Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth, with seven combined, have won more than once in that period. Because of that sequence men’s golf is said to have never been stronger. Surely the same can then be said of the women’s game?

    However, even if she didn’t lift the trophy, for me Ashleigh Buhai’s gesture on the 18th green at Woburn said it all. If you want to see it ‘live’, go to YouTube, search ‘Hinako Shibuno Highlights from the Final Round of the 2019 AIG Women’s British Open’ and find it at the 1:17 mark.

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