Search

The It Girl Teenager Natalie Gulbis is headed for stardom--and all of its challenges

April 22, 2002
April 22, 2002

Table of Contents
April 22, 2002

Golf Plus

The It Girl Teenager Natalie Gulbis is headed for stardom--and all of its challenges

Ty Votaw, the LPGA commissioner, should pray every morning for the
success of 19-year-old rookie Natalie Gulbis. If she hits the big
time, Votaw won't have to convene any more summits.

This is an article from the April 22, 2002 issue

On a tour dominated by a reserved Swede and a standoffish Aussie,
the 5'9" Gulbis is a revelation, a California girl with a sunny
personality and silver-screen beauty. She has the kind of star
quality that has already attracted the William Morris Agency, a
Hollywood dream factory that hopes to get her featured in
commercials and TV shows. "We don't go out and sign just
anybody," says William Morris's board chairman, Norman Brokaw,
75, a leading Tinseltown player who once represented Marilyn
Monroe.

Gulbis could turn out to be golf's Anna Kournikova, a crossover
star who brings loads of new fans to the game. But while
Kournikova has famously never won a tournament, Gulbis has as
much substance as style. Following an accomplished amateur
career, she has turned plenty of heads this year on tour, and not
just because of her short skirts. In four tournaments Gulbis's
best finish is only 18th, at the Takefuji Classic, and she's a
middling 59th on the money list, but she has displayed an
all-around game that could shoot her to the top of the tour. "You
need to go out and watch this girl because she is going to be
very good," says second-year pro Jenna Daniels, a friend of
Gulbis's. "She will do anything to succeed."

This is a complicated time for a teenage girl who's suddenly a
hot commodity in the big-business world of professional golf, all
the while being shepherded by a very protective father. At 6'3"
and 240 pounds, with shoulder-length hair and a scruffy beard,
54-year-old John Gulbis looks as if he would be more comfortable
on a Harley than on the LPGA's manicured fairways. "It's been
Natalie and I since the beginning," says John, a single-digit
handicapper who introduced her to the game at age four. "I have
the key." (Barbara Gulbis, 51, a purchasing director for a
medical lab in Sacramento, defers to her husband in matters
pertaining to Natalie's career.)

John, a native Latvian who was born in a displaced person's camp
in Hanau, West Germany, in 1947, never knew his two older
siblings, who died of diphtheria. His parents, he says, were
determined to find in the U.S. something that didn't come "out of
misery." John, in turn, is determined to pass on a better life to
his only child. "He loves me more than anything," says Natalie.
"There's never been a day when my father said he didn't want to
go to the range with me."

At seven Natalie entered her first tournament. At 13 she finished
second in the California Women's Amateur. The only girl--and the
top player--on the Granite Bay High team, she made history at the
1997 Longs Drugs Challenge when, at 14, she became the youngest
player to qualify for an LPGA event. (Michelle Wie broke the
record earlier this season at the Takefuji Classic.) After a
stellar freshman season at Arizona, during which she won four
tournaments, Natalie turned pro last summer.

By then John had quit his job as a probation officer to focus on
managing Natalie's career, and he helped assemble a first-rate
support group. She now has a brand-name instructor (Butch Harmon)
and a sports psychologist (Fran Pirozzolo), as well as a business
manager (Randy Ramirez) and two agents--Brokaw and Chris Murray of
Imani Sports. No wonder there's no time for a boyfriend. "Yeah,
that's all I need, another person [in my life]," Natalie says.

The most hands-on member of the entourage is Ramirez, who came
aboard a year ago when the Gulbises were looking for a caddie for
Natalie at the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf
Club in Southern Pines, N.C. The hilly terrain was too much for
John, who five years ago shattered his left kneecap attempting to
break up a fight among inmates at a juvenile facility. Ramirez, a
49-year-old Sacramento businessman who is active in golf circles
there, helped guide Natalie to a solid 34th at the Open. They
clicked, and he was subsequently hired to oversee the business
aspects of Gulbis's career.

In addition to providing $60,000 in seed money for this year's
expenses--which came in handy while Gulbis was waiting for the
first installments from her three-year, mid-six-figure
endorsement contract with Adidas and TaylorMade--Ramirez has also
done double duty as Gulbis's caddie while she searches for a
full-time looper.

At the Office Depot Championship, on April 5-7 in suburban L.A.,
Ramirez's dual role brought to a head the question of who should
be calling the shots for Natalie. During the three rounds John
was frustrated with his daughter's and her caddie's inability to
read the greens and pull the proper clubs at El Caballero Country
Club. Natalie's homemade swing is keyed by a ferocious shoulder
turn made possible, in part, by a quirk of birth--she has an extra
vertebra. Though Harmon has smoothed some of her rough edges,
Natalie was often in trouble at El Cab. Midway through the back
nine of what would be a two-over 74, John was already looking
ahead. "I'm caddying in Sacramento [for this week's Longs
Drugs]," he said, confirming a previous arrangement "If I were on
the bag, her game would be 50 percent better. I know her game and
her swing and her abilities better than anyone else."

John isn't shy about sharing this information. After the second
round he gave Natalie a painfully blunt assessment of her play.
"You mishit an incredible amount of shots on the back nine and
had an incredible number of poor putts," he said at one point.
Natalie remained expressionless as he spoke. Later, she said of
John's critique, "I've learned to get adjusted to that. It might
be something negative that I've done or something that can be
improved on, but it's never degrading to me. It's always in my
best interest."

Of course, John is Natalie's biggest fan as well as her harshest
critic. Following a meeting at the William Morris office in
Beverly Hills on the eve of the Office Depot, Natalie expressed
some concerns about the mounting pressures she is facing. "Just
don't limit yourself," John said gently. "I've always told you
that. You can do anything you want, and I'll support you 100
percent."

On the eve of the Longs Drugs Challenge, John was still planning
to caddie, bad knee and all. Ramirez looks forward to the day
that Natalie assumes greater independence. "If Natalie is going
to compete on a level with Annika [Sorenstam] and Karrie [Webb],
she's going to have to think and maneuver on her own," he says.
"She's going to have to come out from under the guidance of her
father and me and start to accept sole responsibility for her
success."

This is a point Natalie seems to understand. "I would like it to
be where my father is simply a father and there aren't any
crossovers," she says. "Right now I have a manager who's a caddie
and a father who's a coach."

This kind of clear-eyed view is not unusual for a confident young
woman who is conversant with a wide range of topics. Taking in a
game at Dodger Stadium two weeks ago, she mentioned that she has
read four books on Buddhism--"I like the peacefulness," she
says--and is eager to learn about other religions. A minute later
she and John ducked into a luxury box to watch one of their
favorite television shows, the teen drama Dawson's Creek. So much
for Buddha.

Whether it's as a TV-watching companion or an emergency caddie,
John will always be by his daughter's side, but he does express a
willingness to reduce his role. "I don't need to be involved in
everything," John says.

Clearly that day is still some distance away. For now Natalie
will have plenty of help navigating the complicated journey to
superstardom. "We don't have it all figured out yet," she says.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA Tiptoeing around Gulbis's bodacious swing was learned at the knee of her father, John (left), a former probation officer.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JAN SONNENMAIR (2) Anna-tude Gulbis's trip to L.A. included shopping and reviewing publicity shots with William Morris chairman Brokaw (seated). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD BIGELOW/AURORA Big load Manager Ramirez has done double duty as a looper, a role in which he has upset Natalie's dad.
"If I were on the bag," says John, "her game would be 50 percent
better. I know her abilities better than anyone."
On a tour dominated by a reserved Swede and a standoffish Aussie,
Gulbis is a pretty California girl with a sunny personality.