Natalie Gulbis quietly walked into a ballroom on Wednesday night at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples wearing a short black dress, a sparkling headband glimmering atop her long blonde locks. Gulbis was there to receive the Tournament Owners Association’s Player Ambassador Award, which is voted on by her peers. She won it last year, too.
No one on tour does more for the LPGA than Gulbis. Imagine a golf world in which Gulbis contended every week. Imagine if there were 10 Natalies on tour.
The CME Group must be busting at the seams looking at this leaderboard. Not only is Gulbis in a three-way tie for the lead at the season-ending event with Gerina Piller and Pornanong Phatlum, but Stacy Lewis, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie are chasing.
Gulbis, 30, hasn’t won an LPGA event since the Evian Masters in 2007. She has only led after the third round twice — in 2002 and ’06 — and didn’t win either time.
“(Evian) seems like a very long time ago and I think about it all day long, and every single time I practice or I work out,” said Gulbis, “and even though I’ve had good finishes or played good golf, it’s still not an individual win.”
This year has been a memorable one for Gulbis. She started the season in a Singapore hospital after contracting malaria in Thailand. It wasn’t until the Wegmans LPGA Championship in Rochester (early June) that she had enough energy to practice after the round.
“Many of you guys know me and I’m not very good at resting,” Gulbis said. “They said you’re probably going to battle this for the next six months and you should probably take the next two months and just relax.
"So I thought that if I cut that in half and then cut that in half that I could probably get back for that. . . . Every single time I would get back out and play, it would relapse and they would say, ‘We told you this was going to happen.’ So then I would get a little bit better and do everything I was supposed to do, and then I would try to play and then I would relapse a second time.”
The year got significantly better, though, when Gulbis’ boyfriend, Josh Rodarmel, proposed. The couple plan to wed next month in a small, private ceremony in California. Rodarmel, a former Yale quarterback and 1-handicap, is involved in a women’s nutrition company called Vrou and has a consulting company.
“It’s really fun being engaged because everybody throws you parties, which is awesome,” said Gulbis. “Like your family throws you a party, your friends on tour throw you parties, every host family that I’ve been to this year, they like to celebrate.”
After struggling this fall in Asia, Gulbis took off several weeks and worked in Las Vegas with longtime instructor Butch Harmon. She changed irons and went back to the basics.
Good play at the Wendy’s 3-Tour Challenge with Cristie Kerr and Stacy Lewis (the LPGA won) carried over to Naples. After pulling a 5-iron into the water on the first hole Saturday, Gulbis went on to post eight birdies for a 7-under 65. Her best finish in ’13 is a T-9 at the Ricoh Women’s British Open at St. Andrews.
Earlier in her career, Gulbis would’ve relied on superstitions to get her through Sunday’s round. Whether it was wearing the right color or having a Victoria filet and steamed broccoli from Outback, a former sponsor. Gulbis said she would obnoxiously go out of her way to keep her superstitions intact. Her father was no different, taking her to McDonald’s before every round when she was a junior player and then carrying on the tradition himself her first few years on the LPGA.
“It’s very hard to keep up with those,” said Gulbis. “When one doesn’t go your way, then that’s really mentally exhausting.”
Besides, Gulbis doesn’t have time for it. If she’s not working out, meeting with fans, shooting a commercial or interviewing players on the red carpet, like she did last night, then she’s on the range.
No one jams more into a day than Gulbis. And she learned from three LPGA veterans how to dedicate her time.
When Gulbis was a rookie on tour, it was Meg Mallon, Juli Inkster and Beth Daniel who told her what it meant to be an American on the LPGA, and that she was expected to leave the tour better than she found it, all the while inspiring future generations.