American Kournikova

Natalie Gulbis has the looks, the marketing power, the boyfriend and the ambition to become a crossover star. So what if she's never won an LPGA event?
February 14, 2005

Late last month Natalie Gulbis journeyed to Los Angeles to take meetings with six television networks that had expressed interest in producing a reality show documenting her adventures on the LPGA tour and her life away from it. TV is the next logical step for a beautiful, personable 22-year-old perched at the intersection of sports and celebrity. In her three years on tour Gulbis has teased with potential but delivered only middling results, failing to win a tournament and climbing no higher than 39th on the money list, yet right now no other woman in golf is enjoying as much buzz.

In 2004 about 650,000 unique visitors surfed nataliegulbis.com, their curiosity stoked by her wildly successful calendar, replete with cheesecake shots, and a splashy photo spread in the lads magazine FHM. In recent weeks the media have been atwitter with rumors of a romance between Gulbis and Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' star quarterback. Little wonder that industry heavyweight TaylorMade-Adidas recently re-upped with Gulbis for three years, one of the many deals that will push her off-course earnings this year to the high six figures, money exceeded in the women's game by only a short list of top players. Gulbis will be one of only two LPGA players on the TaylorMade-Adidas staff, and John Kawaja, president of Adidas Golf, says she is going to become "the face of our brand on a global scale. If you walk into a merchandise store in Japan or a pro shop in Europe, you're going to see Natalie's picture."

Yet it is in American living rooms where true crossover stardom is born, and that is what lured Gulbis to L.A. for two days of pitch meetings with executives from MTV, Spike TV, 20th Century Fox, FX Network, E! and ABC Family Channel. The whirlwind tour began with a breakfast meeting at a beachside restaurant in Santa Monica. The 5'9" Gulbis showed up in a black miniskirt that showed off her endless, tanned legs, and her long blonde hair was teased into a mane that evoked Farrah Fawcett in her heyday. Joining Gulbis was her father, John, the guiding force in her career and a Harley enthusiast who looks the part. Two agents were also on hand. Chris Murray handles all of Gulbis's golf-related interests out of the Minneapolis offices of Imani Sports. His Midwestern reserve was in stark contrast to the manner of Jason Burns, a smoothy in a sharp suit from the Gersh Agency, a Hollywood powerhouse that represents Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx and George Lopez, among others. Burns had approached Gulbis and her people in November about the reality show, and he called the breakfast summit to coach his new clients on how to sell the idea.

At one point Murray interrupted Burns to address a primary concern. "Let's talk about private lives," said Murray. "How much will she have to let the cameras follow her outside of the golf arena?"

"It's up to Natalie," said Burns. "Whatever she feels comfortable with."

"Not a lot," Gulbis said. "I'd like to be seen as a golfer, as an athlete, and keep the rest private."

"That's fine, but you have to understand that the bigger a celebrity gets, the more people want to know about her," said Burns. "They only show Jessica Simpson singing for one minute of every episode. The rest of it is about every other aspect of her life."

This would not be the last mention of Simpson, once a struggling purveyor of mediocre pop music who has become a household name thanks to the MTV reality show Newlyweds. She joined another blonde specter who has long haunted Gulbis's career: Anna Kournikova, the famously winless tennis player who has leveraged her sullen beauty into tens of millions of off-court dollars. But while Simpson and Kournikova have a naked lust for the spotlight, Gulbis is inherently private and even a touch conservative, and improving her golf game is her primary obsession, even as she gets drawn deeper into the star-making process. Her reticence was obvious in another exchange that took place over breakfast. Asked what she had planned for the ensuing week, Gulbis said, "Nothing, really. Just go back home to Las Vegas and work on my game."

This brought a grunt from her father. "Natalie Gulbis, do any of these guys have stupid tattooed on their forehead?" John said. "They know about you and Ben. Why don't you simply say you're going to Pittsburgh for Sunday's game?" He was referring to the AFC championship five days hence, in which the Steelers would be hosting the New England Patriots.

Gulbis gave her dad a withering look but said nothing. A little later, while walking out of the restaurant, she grabbed John by the arm and scolded him in a low voice. Shortly after that, Natalie disappeared to take a call from Derek Jeter. (The day after the AFC championship she was to play in a charity golf tournament in Tampa, hosted by the Yankees shortstop.) After his daughter walked away, John buttonholed Murray and Burns. "You guys have to push her," John said, with some heat. "She runs in a really deep crowd and has a really exciting life, but if you listen to her it's as if she's at home knitting a scarf while watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. You guys have to get her to sell herself. I can't always be the bad guy."

Just then Natalie bounded up and squealed, "Derek is going to send a private jet on Sunday night to take us from Pittsburgh to Florida because he needs me there by 10 a.m. on Monday. He wants to auction me off second behind Michael Jordan!"

John threw his hands in the air and bellowed, "See what I mean!" It would have made great TV.

Moments later John and Natalie hopped into her 10-cylinder Ford Harley-Davidson F-150 truck and made the quick drive to the Santa Monica offices of MTV to meet with Lauren Dolgen, the manager of original programming and series development, and Blythe Cappello, senior talent director. Murray passed out copies of Gulbis's calendar as if they were business cards, saying, "The company behind this handles all the big calendars--Pamela Anderson, Anna Kournikova, Playboy. They're giving up on Kournikova and putting all their energy behind Natalie." Noting the heavy traffic on nataliegulbis.com, Murray said, "We think she's about two minutes away from exploding. She has the chance to transcend her sport."

Gulbis sat mutely while Murray and Burns offered their pitches, but under cross-examination by the MTV execs she was cool and composed. Asked why she wanted to have "cameras invade every aspect of her life," she didn't flinch, saying, "I have an amazing life, and I'm very excited about sharing it. Professional athletes are not like everybody else, and I think it would be interesting for fans to get behind the scenes." Hearing this, Burns couldn't suppress a smile.

"What's the next step for your career?" Cappello asked.

"To create a brand, become a household name, like Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter or Tiger Woods. To be seen not just as a golfer but as a personality."

"How do you get there?"

Here John interrupted. "Play better golf," he said.

natalie was taught the game by her father, and as a Sacramento amateur she had tremendous success with her homemade swing, taking the California Amateur at age 14 and winning four tournaments in her one season in college, at Arizona. But her long, loose swing depends largely on timing and raw athleticism, and since her first year as a pro she has been toiling with Butch Harmon to develop a shorter, more repeatable action. "She's an extremely hard worker and has made great progress toward a more technically sound swing," says Harmon. "Now she needs to start scoring and eliminating mistakes. She has the kind of talent where she should be in the top 10 or 15 every week."

Among the longest hitters in the women's game, Gulbis ranked 21st last year in total birdies, yet she had only two top 10 finishes, often going backward when she was in contention. "It's hard to be patient and not force things because I want to win so badly," she says. Her immodest goals for 2005 are to make the Solheim Cup team and not only get her first victory but also "win a few times."

Says Harmon, "Natalie knows it's time to deliver on the course. She has taken on such a high profile that it has created extra pressure to back it up with results."

Back at MTV there was little interest in such golf talk, but there was plenty of probing about Gulbis's private life.

"Do you have a boyfriend?" Cappello asked.

"Not yet."

"Are you dating?"

"A little bit."

Gulbis's evasiveness compelled Murray to jump in. "We're trying to keep it a little quiet because he's high-profile," he said.

"Is he a golfer?" Cappello asked.

"He's a football player," Gulbis said. "He's in season, and he needs to be asked about football, not me."

"I guess I'll have to Google this later," Cappello said.

There are no shortage of news clippings. Beginning in early January the romance was reported everywhere from the Las Vegas Review-Journal toSPORTS ILLUSTRATED, though Roethlisberger told the Philadelphia Daily News, "It's not true. I talked to her once on the phone, but there's nothing there." That was simply a smoke screen as the young couple tried to maintain some privacy in a developing relationship. While tossing around Roethlisberger's name at pitch meetings might generate added heat, Gulbis played it coy because, she says, "I don't want it to look as if I'm exploiting Ben's fame in any way." She does reluctantly cop to sitting in Roethlisberger's luxury suite at the AFC Championship Game, along with his mom, and that a few days after the Steelers' loss he visited her in Las Vegas, where Gulbis delighted in thumping him on the golf course.

If she thought MTV would be the only television outlet interested in her life away from golf, the ensuing meeting with Spike TV squashed that notion. At the Spike offices she was greeted by Tim Duffy, the director of original series. With his slicked-back hair and oily charm he was exactly what you'd expect from "the first network for men." One of the first questions Duffy asked, in hopeful tones, was, "So, do you party?"

"I live in Las Vegas," Gulbis said, deftly deflecting the question.

Actually, she lives on the outskirts, in Henderson, Nev., at the swank Lake Las Vegas development, for which she is a paid endorser. Gulbis left the family home in Sacramento when she was 19, lured to the Vegas area by the absence of a state income tax and the proximity to Harmon's golf school. Yet even in Sin City she is a model of clean living. Gulbis doesn't gamble and usually ventures to the Strip only to see Celine Dion, whose concerts she's been to a dozen times and counting. She is religious about lifting weights and running, and claims that during this off-season not a single day has gone by without her working on her game. (On Gulbis's first day of meetings in L.A., a schedule change opened up a few hours around lunchtime and she rushed to a municipal course to work on her putting, drawing plenty of stares and a few autograph seekers.)

Gulbis credits her father for instilling in her the drive to succeed. John's a retired probation officer but maintains the intimidating visage that served him well during his career. At the Spike TV meeting he was asked, "So what happens when someone is hitting on your daughter? Are you overprotective?"

"I'm 6'3" and 250 pounds, so people tend to get out of my way," John said. "I know the regulars in her gallery, who's harmless and who I have to keep my eye on. But there's always someone hitting on her, especially when"--he picked up one of the calendars and waved it around--"she looks like this."

Obviously John has no qualms about his daughter's capitalizing on her charms. "It was his idea for me to do a swimsuit calendar," Natalie says. But John does have his standards. He tagged along to the FHM photo shoot, telling BusinessWeek online that he was there to "keep it clean and tasteful. No way she's wearing underwear or a negligee." Instead she wound up in bikinis and microminis.

As the Gulbises journeyed from network to network, they modulated their pitch to fit the audience. The executives at ABC Family were particularly interested in the father-daughter dynamic, what Murray jokingly called "beauty and the beast." While Barbara Gulbis stays home in Sacramento working as a purchasing director for a medical lab, her husband and daughter travel the tour by car, pulling a trailer with John's Harley. Instead of claustrophobic hotel rooms they prefer to stay in private housing, usually with families they have known for years. Natalie broke up the room at ABC Family by describing the mortician who hosts them during a tournament. One of the executives later said she could envision a golf version of The Simple Life, Paris Hilton's fish-out-of-water reality show in which she and a sidekick visit backwater towns.

This week Gulbis will be presented with written offers from "multiple" networks, according to Burns. The proposals, for series ranging from six to 13 episodes to be shot this season, are expected to pay Gulbis in the low five figures per episode. "Of course, the money goes up exponentially if you have a hit," Burns says.

Gulbis has retained her equanimity even as her television star turn edges closer. "Would it be exciting to have my own TV show? Winning tournaments would be exciting," she says. "[Burns] came to us with the idea, so it was worth exploring, but golf really is my focus. For some people their whole career--their whole life!--depends on an opportunity like a reality show. I can take it or leave it."

Gulbis's complicated feelings toward the fame game are best illustrated through her calendar. In the coming weeks she will do the photo shoot for the 2006 edition. The plan is to use only swimsuit pictures. "If she's holding a golf club, she's just Natalie Gulbis of the LPGA," says John F. Turner, whose eponymous company produces calendars for 70 athletes, including Jeter, Brett Favre and Andy Roddick. "If you put her in a completely different setting she takes on a different persona, and that is important for extending her brand."

Gulbis will dutifully don the teeny-weeny bikinis but says, "I'd rather be in my golf shirt and skirt. I liked the 2005 calendar because there were pictures of me on the course, working out and in casual clothes. That captures my personality a little better."

She understands that it is the racier material that moves the needle. Her first calendar, for 2004, debuted to little fanfare. The '05 edition was released during last year's U.S. Women's Open, in July, and received a priceless publicity boost when the USGA put the kibosh on a signing, deeming four bikini shots "inappropriate." Since then John F. Turner and Company has gone back to print four times, selling about 40,000 copies at $12.99 apiece. (Gulbis gets a percentage of each calendar sold.)

While most players are forced to autograph sweaty hats or crumpled programs, Gulbis's calendar has become her calling card. The week after L.A. she traveled to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando for appearances and meetings. (Murray says he is in discussions with "a camera company and a well-known candy company.") At the LPGA booth at the show she signed calendars for the allotted two hours, and there were still 100 people waiting in line. "We have exceptionally high hopes for Natalie," Turner says. "She's going to be our next Kournikova, but she has the chance to be even bigger because of the longevity of her career and because she has a warm personality that endears her to the public." Turner says he is hoping for sales of 100,000 or more for the '06 calendar.

But as Gulbis's image gets ever bigger and more provocative, she runs the risk of alienating her core constituency in the conservative golf world. "Some kinds of celebrity can be destructive," says Adidas's Kawaja. "It might be counterintuitive, but we're not hoping she'll become the next Paris Hilton. Her value for us is performance on the course and representing the brand. We want the next generation of young girls to dream about being golfers, not TV stars."

Kawaja would have been cheered to see Gulbis at the photo shoot for this article. Dolled up and perfectly at ease as the center of attention, she certainly looked ready for her close-up. Yet the moment the shoot was over Gulbis exchanged her stilettos for golf spikes. "I'm going to go tee it up," she said before hopping into her truck and roaring into the future.

"What's the next step for your career?" Cappello asked. Said Gulbis, "To create a brand, like Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. To be seen not just as a golfer, but as a personality."

"Natalie knows it's time to deliver on the course," says Harmon, Gulbis's swing coach. "She has taken on such a high profile that it has created extra pressure to back it up with results."

COLOR PHOTODARREN CARROLL THE DISH The reality series envisioned by John and Natalie would pull back the curtain on Gulbis's golf and personal life. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora TIGHTLY WOUND In three years on tour Gulbis's distinctive homemade swing has failed her when she's been in contention. TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora MAN'S WORLD Spike's Duffy (above right) looked for Natalie's spicier side, while Murray (far right) and John kept a watchful eye. THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Todd Bigelow/Aurora PITCH PERFECT Burns (above left) expects a proposal from ABC Family, which was interested in the John-Natalie dynamic. COLOR PHOTODAVID WALBERG HOT ITEM Sales of Gulbis's 2005 calendar, which she signed at the show, spiked after the USGA deemed four photos "inappropriate."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)