With a charming personality, a bright future and a game to match, Natalie Gulbis is the real deal.
MADERA, Calif. - Sometimes Natalie Gulbis has to pinch herself.
"Look at me," she says. "I'm 19 years old, and I'm a professional athlete. It's awesome. It's like living a dream."
Of course, Gulbis didn't just wake up this year as a budding LPGA Tour star. From the day she was born, her life has been on fast forward. She started playing golf at the age of 4, won her first tournament at age 7 and was breaking par by the time she was 10. She graduated from high school in three years so she could spend more time on her game.
An All-American in her only season at the University of Arizona, Gulbis turned pro when her team's coach left and the university wouldn't release her from scholarship. One year later, it looks like a sound decision.
Runner-up to rookie of the year Beth Bauer, Gulbis is already among the most recognizable players in the game. And it isn't just because of her stellar play. From Sports Illustrated to the "Today" show, everyone wants a piece of Gulbis. With her good looks and charming personality, the 5-foot-9 Gulbis is the brightest new face on the women's tour in years.
Before making the automatic comparison to a certain attractive women's tennis star, be assured that Gulbis' game warrants the attention. She earned her LPGA Tour card by tying for third at qualifying school last year, and she ranked 39th on the money list this season with four top-10 finishes.
No wonder Gulbis bristles at the mention of Anna Kournikova, abruptly ending the interview with a fiery stare.
Yes, we made that last sentence up. Like everything else, Gulbis handles the comparison with aplomb.
"It's a flattering comment," she said. "Anytime you get any kind of a positive comparison in the media, you'll take it. I'd rather be compared to Annika Sorenstam, but that's OK."
At this point, any comparison to Sorenstam is premature, but there's reason to think Gulbis has the game to reach such lofty heights. In just her seventh LPGA event, she was in position to win after taking a one-stroke lead into the final round of the Aerus Electrolux USA Championship. Gulbis finished eighth, while Sorenstam posted a final-round 64 to win the tournament.
When their schedules permit, Gulbis works on her game with Butch Harmon, swing doctor to Tiger Woods. Harmon is working on adjustments to her unorthodox swing, which features her head rotating away from the ball in the backswing with the club going extremely high.
"It's never hurt my golf game, but I get away with it because I'm young," said Gulbis, who has an extra vertebra in her lower back. "But I would like my game to last into my 30s and 40s, and I'm not sure my swing would hold up. So I'd like to slowly evolve into a more traditional swing to reduce the strain on my body."
Harmon reviewed his work with Gulbis in a recent Golf Digest article, noting that Gulbis has "the most unusual position at the top that I've ever seen." Fortunately, her powerful downswing and excellent lower body rotation means her game requires only minor adjustments. "Her potential is unlimited," Harmon said. "Natalie has a tremendous amount of talent."
Gulbis was 4 years old when she began tagging along with her father, John, on courses in her hometown of Sacramento. A retired probation officer with long hair and a shaggy beard, John Gulbis is his daughter's unofficial driver, security officer and golf consultant on the road. Most of all, he's a proud father.
When Natalie made the decision to turn pro, John initiated a concerted marketing effort. Within months, she had two agents, a business manager, a psychologist, and sponsorships from companies such as Met-Rx, TaylorMade-Adidas, and Maxfli. Before long, LPGA fans were well aware of the charismatic rookie from California.
"There's been so much demand," John said. "You add up all the other LPGA girls combined and she gets more hits on the LPGA website (www.lpga.com) than they do."
With an eye toward cross-marketing, Team Gulbis has plans to capitalize on that popularity. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," John said.
During the offseason, Gulbis will be taking acting classes, and there's talk of her appearing in a commercial for Adidas with Kournikova. She also has a contract with the William Morris Agency to find her acting work (she's already talking with Warner Bros. about a part in a television series).
"That'll be something I'll do when I have time away from golf, but that's not my top off-season goal. My number one goal is my training and my golf," Gulbis said. "If something comes up and they can put me in a show, I'll be in Los Angeles in a second. But I don't wake up to be an actress. I love to be in the gym and play golf."
Even with her many sponsorship commitments and outside activities, Gulbis (who turns 20 in January) still makes working out and running a top priority. For now, she's going to try and make time for everything.
"Golf is entertainment," she said, "and if there's some way that we can help promote our tour in a classy manner, we're going to do it."
Having wrapped up today's pro-am in Central California, Gulbis has just a minute to change and grab an energy bar before taping a segment for the Golf Channel. Despite the day's hectic pace, Gulbis made a few dozen new fans, including her playing partner for the day, Casey Martin.
"She just treated everyone so kind," Martin said. "No attitude at all. A girl that's 18 or 19 on the LPGA Tour, who's had success and is attractive as she is, you'd think there'd just be massive attitude. But there's none of that. She's just a sweetheart.
"She made sure she signed every autograph. Didn't have a snotty word for anyone. That was by far the most impressive thing. Now, she's got a great game and she's a beautiful gal, but she's just a very nice person. I was very impressed."
As an amateur, Gulbis and her father drove 130,000 miles traveling to tournaments, and they continued to drive to many of this year's events. So when she talks about appreciating her fans, it sounds refreshingly sincere.
"I think if someone's going to come out and watch me do what I love to do, I can spend 15-20 seconds with them," Gulbis said. "If that little amount of time is going to continue to create a greater fan base, then it's well worth it."
November 20, 2002
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