Originally created 05/17/02

Rookie sensation shows her age en route to firing 78

The LPGA's newest "It girl" didn't have it Thursday.

Natalie Gulbis, the 19-year-old rookie sensation who nearly won last week, was anything but sensational in shooting 78 during the first round of the Asahi Ryokuken International Championship at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club. It was another tough lesson of professional life for a teen-ager.

"It's frustrating coming off a good week and shooting 78 and embarrassing yourself," she said.

Gulbis was mentally set up to struggle this week at Mount Vintage. She doesn't like the course, hates the greens and isn't thrilled with her Augusta hotel or the 30-minute drive to the golf course.

Struggling through a 5 1/2-hour round made it all too easy to cop an attitude and let it get away. Her shots kept landing in the wrong place, and she dragged her putter behind her. After a good approach at the pin on the 17th hole shot over the back of the green, Gulbis' 35-foot chip came up 20 feet short.

"She's got way too much ability to do that," said her father, John Gulbis. "That's where maturity comes in. If you don't like the course, so what. You've still got to play."

Examples were all around Gulbis. In her threesome was Catriona Matthew, who also struggled to a 2-over score on the front nine before grinding out a 34 on the back to finish at even-par 72. In the group behind, Annika Sorenstam was frustrated by the winds and the greens and the slow play, but she recovered with a long birdie on 18 to shoot 72.

"I didn't grind very well today," Gulbis said. "I had tons of 5- or 6-foot putts I could have made to turn my round around to a positive thing, but I didn't make them. The good players don't shoot 78. They figure out how to grind it out."

That Gulbis at least recognizes this is why she will one day be the superstar she's expected to become. That she was unwilling to recognize it soon enough to matter Thursday is the mark of youth.

"If you figured that out six holes ago, you wouldn't have shot 78," her father told her.

If you don't recognize Gulbis yet - and you will - you can recognize her father. If Gulbis is the next "It Girl," then John Gulbis is closer to Cousin It from The Addams Family. With his wildly long hair and coarse beard, he looks exactly like a probation officer - which he was during his 23 years in law enforcement.

"He doesn't fit the normal golfer mode - clean cut and stuff like that," Gulbis said of her full-time traveling companion. "That's why he stands out."

Gulbis stands out in entirely different way. She's beautiful. She's talented. She's young. She's exactly what the LPGA Tour hopes will attract fans to their game. She's been compared to Anna Kournikova in tennis - only Gulbis is far more likely to win tournaments.

Gulbis is so marketable, in fact, that she's a client of the William Morris talent agency. They wanted to feature her in a television adventure series on the WB network, but it proved to be logistically impossible for an LPGA rookie. With acting classes under her belt and Hollywood heavyweights such as Aaron Spelling in her corner, expect to see her in cameo roles and maybe some featured performances in the future.

"There are some people out there who are pretty excited about her," John Gulbis said.

Gulbis thinks that kind of exposure would "bring more attention to the golf." And it's the golf she wants to make her mark doing.

"That's my only goal," she said. "I don't have any other priorities in my life or any other obligations. I want to be as successful as I can, and I'm willing to work for it."

She'll have to work harder than she did Thursday. With her father's guidance, you can bet she will.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.


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