The brightest young star in the LPGA Tour's new batch of rookies could be Natalie Gulbis, an 18-year-old from California who breezed through both stages without feeling the pressure that usually accompanies Q-school.
She won the first stage by eight strokes and was within one shot of the lead Sunday at LPGA International until a double bogey slowed her momentum. Still, she tied for third to earn her card for the 2002 season.
"I thought it would be a lot worse, but it was fun," she said. "I never got nervous."
So, where does she go from there?
"To the gym right now," she said with a laugh. "Then maybe we'll go celebrate at Cracker Barrel."
Gulbis is not the first teen-ager to join the tour, but she has all the ingredients to become a marketing entity for the LPGA Tour if she wins - an engaging personality, good looks and a public course background of hard work and no free rides.
Her father said she spends two hours a day in the gym and can bench-press 110 pounds. John Gulbis, whose Latvian parents were in a displaced-persons camp in Germany when he was born in 1947, is her coach and sits behind her in a lawn chair on the practice range.
Gulbis was a competitive gymnast until a growth spurt as an early teen - she's now about 5-foot-8. She turned to diving, but never strayed far from golf.
"I've always leaned toward individual sports because it's all on you," she said. "It's not on someone else throwing a good pitch or missing a shot for the team. You control everything."
Gulbis first experienced the LPGA Tour as a 14-year-old. Her father took some kids to Twelve Bridges Golf Club in Lincoln, Calif., and tournament organizers asked if they would like to volunteer for the Longs Drugs Challenge.
John Gulbis had other plans. He showed organizers his daughter's credentials, she applied to play in the Monday qualifier and earned one of two spots, making her the youngest player history to qualify for a tournament in LPGA history.
Gulbis spent one year at Arizona, winning three times, including the NCAA West regional. She tied for 34th in the U.S. Women's Open, one shot shy of low amateur, then turned professional a month later.
She turns 19 in January and her father will accompany her on the road, which should turn a few heads. John Gulbis, a retired probation officer, looks like he never made it home from Woodstock - brown hair mixed with blond streaks well past his shoulders, a grizzled beard and no nonsense when it comes to his daughter.
"I may look like somebody out of a pickup truck, but I'm not," said the father, who has a Master's degree from Cal State-Sacramento. "I like this image, because it keeps people off my daughter. She's a beautiful gal, and people want to talk to her. They see me coming over the hill, and they don't want to talk any more."
Gulbis signed with Chris Murray of Imani Sports, the same agent as Casey Martin, and already has an endorsement with Taylor Made-adidas. She plans to make her debut next year in Hawaii.
NEW DIGS: Charles Howell III is close to signing a deal with J. Lindeberg, the same clothing company that Jesper Parnevik represents. He showed up at Disney wearing tight-fitting, navy blue pants with a thin purple stripe.
Well, they're supposed to be tight.
"I'm skinny enough to make these pants look baggy," said the 152-pound Howell.
Not to worry. Howell said he won't have the "Jesper extreme look," and has no plans to wear hot pink or even flip the bill on his cap.
"It's just a different look," he said. "In the NBA, like Dennis Rodman, who have to have 17 body piercings and dye your hair 10 colors. In golf, you wear something like this and you're different."
EARL SPEAKS: The father of Tiger Woods says Fuzzy Zoeller got a "bum rap" for his racially insensitive comments after Woods won the 1997 Masters.
"I don't think it was personal, and I think he got slapped in the face inordinately," Earl Woods said in an interview with Golf Digest magazine. "I feel sorry for the guy, and I hope he doesn't feel bitter toward Tiger and me for not coming to his rescue because, hell, we didn't know."
Woods said he and his son were cooped up in meetings with Nike when Zoeller's remarks were made public. As Tiger Woods was on his way to victory, Zoeller told CNN, "Tell him not to serve fried chicken next year ... or collard greens, or whatever the hell they serve."
Woods didn't acknowledge Zoeller's apology until three days later.
"When Tiger issued a statement, that's where he got criticized, because he issued it so late," his father said. "But if you don't know something is going on, you can't respond to it."
TOUGHER TEST: Players needed only one good round to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open. That won't be the case any longer.
The U.S. Golf Association approved changes to the qualifying system that bring it in line with the men's U.S. Open. Instead of an 18-hole qualifier, women will face an 18-hole local qualifier at 16 sites, followed by a 36-hole sectional qualifier at eight sites.
"Interest in the women's national championship has grown to the point where it is time to institute a better method," said Cora Jane Blanchard, head of the USGA Women's Committee.
DIVOTS: A full-sized bronze statue of the late Payne Stewart will be unveiled Nov. 6 near the 18th green of Pinehurst No. 2, where he won the 1999 U.S. Open with a 15-foot par putt to defeat Phil Mickelson by one stroke. The statue will join those of Pinehurst founder James Walker Tufts and Donald Ross, the first professional at Pinehurst and designer of four of its courses. ... Ten of the 31 players who have won PGA Tour events this year have not qualified for the Tour Championship.
STAT OF THE WEEK: Bob Estes now has 17 consecutive rounds in the 60s on the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods never has had more than 11 straight rounds in the 60s.
FINAL WORD: "I don't recall that slow play was a problem in recreational golf until the average golfer had the bad example of the PGA Tour on television." - Frank Hannigan, former USGA executive director.
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