Gulbis one of most popular player on the LPGA Tour

JOHN HERBERT -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 10:55 AM ET

She's posed in a bikini for a men's magazine, partied at the Oscars, has her own racy calendars, a reality show, lucrative endorsement deals, a personal line of swimwear and she's been nominated for hottest female athlete of 2006.

Natalie Gulbis has it all.

The only thing missing is a victory on the LPGA Tour.

The 23-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., headed to the Avian Masters in France and the British Women's Open in hopes of clearing the final hurdle from star attraction to star player before arriving in London on Monday for the Canadian Women's Open at the London Hunt and Country Club.

Everywhere she has the largest galleries. When she's on TV and in contention, ratings skyrocket.

Expect the same in London.

"I think outside of Annika, she's probably the most popular player on the LPGA Tour," said Sean Van Kesteren, tournament director for the Royal Canadian Golf Association.

Gulbis is the headliner in the 156-player field competing for $1.7 million US.

With Gulbis, teenager Morgan Pressel, Cristie Kerr, Lorie Kane and Juli Inkster, the national championship has a star-studded field, even minus Sorenstam, Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer.

"I think it helps the gate," said Doug Alexander, London Hunt tournament co-chairperson. "She is a personality. She promotes the game and I think it brings out a young audience and that can only be a positive to us."

Gulbis says after 4a years there's "definitely a sense of urgency'' to win. She was 0 for 126 heading overseas.

"I go out every week trying to win. I've been trying to do that for five years. I've had a lot of great finishes and I've been a top 10 player."

The timing couldn't be better for the Hunt Club with Gulbis on the cusp of victory -- or coming off a victory in France or

England.

Some say Gulbis is the LPGA's version of tennis pin-up Anna Kournikova with no victories, but others say she's the complete package.

The LPGA had her rated as an up-and-comer before she joined the tour.

A comparison to tennis star Maria Sharapova is much more accurate as Gulbis brings much more than her good looks -- she's a tall California blonde, of course -- to the golf course.

Gulbis had won $573,000 US this year before heading to Europe.

Last year, she won more than $1 million US, setting an LPGA record for the most money earned in a season without a victory.

She's won more than $2 million US in her short career which almost produced a victory last month in Toledo, where Mi Hyun Kim of South Korea beat her in a playoff to win the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic.

Kim is also headed to London.

After losing, Gulbis tried hard to put a good spin on another weekend without a win, something she'd trade in a heartbeat for all those magazine covers and calendar shots.

Gulbis did everything possible to win that final Sunday afternoon, shooting a six-under 65.

"It's not like I finished last. There's tons and tons of positive stuff. I look at my game and how many under par I finished

(20 under) and the fact I shot 65 on Sunday and still didn't win it. I went into Sunday with the lead, played well and that builds a lot of confidence.

"Sundays are always fun, especially if you're in the hunt."

Gulbis said after the playoff loss, she slept only a few hours, but was "just burned

. . . so frustrated, so tired after being so pumped."

Gulbis is well aware of her image and star power.

Sports and entertainment stars long on good looks and talent have always been celebrated and acquired riches.

Jennifer Lopez, Kathy Ireland, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, O.J. Simpson, Joe Namath and Jaclyn Smith come to mind.

Before Gulbis, the golf world had Laura Baugh.

Hockey has Sidney Crosby.

Baseball has Johnny Damon.

Car racing has Danica Patrick.

"I love all that stuff, too,'' said Gulbis, who added the ESPN audience jumped 108 per cent this year when she was in contention.

"I love big galleries. But I've got an incredible amount of support and the LPGA Tour is in such a good state right now. With Annika, Juli and some of the young stars there's such a cool mix out there."

The Gulbis story is not one of overnight fame and riches.

Natalie Anne Gulbis was born Jan. 3, 1983, in Sacramento.

She lives today in Las Vegas, where she initially moved for tax purposes and because her golf coach, Butch Harmon -- Tiger's coach until their fallout -- is based there.

Her father, John, worked for the Sacramento County Probation Department, while her mother Barbara is purchasing director at a medical laboratory in Sacramento.

Natalie played her first golf shots at the age of four.

She won her first tournament by the age of seven.

She was breaking par by the time she turned 10.

In 1996, as a 13-year-old, she

finished second in the California women's amateur.

The same year, she became the youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA event.

At 14, she won the amateur title.

As a high school student, Gulbis played on the boys' golf team and was a member of the school gym and swim teams,

but excelled academically,

graduating when she was only 16.

Her golf career took off when she went to the University of

Arizona, where she was a first team all-American in 2001 and was the U.S. Amateur medallist in 1998.

This will be the second visit to London for Gulbis.

In May, she was among seven LPGA players Canadian National Railway paid to play the course at a private function.

"It was very nice and in great shape,'' she says.

"I hope they play it as difficult as possible because I like tough courses, like open courses, when par is a good score.

"I hope they have an Open setup. Make it like a Canadian Open."

Gulbis didn't particularly care for such huge greens, but said

at least they're not big and

flat.

"There are sections you need to be on," she said. "The one quality I like is each green is like four little greens."

jherbert@lfpress.com


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