London course draws praise

Natalie Gulbis scoops up a ball with her putter after finishing her round on the 9th green...

Natalie Gulbis scoops up a ball with her putter after finishing her round on the 9th green yesterday during the Canadian Women's Open Pro-Am at the London Hunt Club. (London Free Press/Dave Chidley)

JOHN HERBERT -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:11 AM ET

The tournament begins today, but Natalie Gulbis was gushing with praise yesterday about the London Hunt and Country Club course -- calling it one of the best on the LPGA tour.

"I love the course," the young Californian said after playing in the pro-am tournament. "It could not be in any better shape. The weather is perfect. The buzz around the players is they are really excited to be here."

They play for real in the Canadian Women's Open beginning this morning, and for real money -- a $1.7- million US total purse. The winner on Sunday receives $255,000.

The field includes many of the LPGA's top players -- Cristie Kerr, Mi Hyun Kim, Se Ri Pak, Lorie Kane, defending champion Meena Lee Morgan, Brittany Lincicome, Morgan Pressel, Meg Mallon and legends such as Beth Daniel. Everyone is here, it seems, except for Annika Sorenstam, Paula Creamer and Michelle Wie.

Pak is not 100 per cent, still suffering from pain shooting down her arm and a strained neck. She said the problem developed while she was walking on hard ground last week at the British Open.

Play begins with Naree Song hitting the first drive from the first tee at 7:10 a.m.

Gulbis is one of many players who have consistently said they are excited to be here, but really mean it this week. Much credit belongs to Kane, Gulbis and the other LPGA players who came to play the course in May.

During their visit, Royal Canadian Golf Association tournament director Sean Van Kesteren said a great course and big money will attract big stars. He was bang on.

Besides the Hunt Club, which was redesigned by Rees Jones in 1999-2000, the purse caught the attention of American players. If not for Sorenstam's own tournament in Sweden this week, she would have been here.

Van Kesteren was gambling the LPGA players would go back on tour and brag about the Hunt Club.

He was bang on, again.

"When we came out here a month or so ago, it was like six or seven players and this place was spectacular," Gulbis said. "As soon as we got back from doing that outing, everybody wanted to know what's it like up there. What's the golf course like? Where are you going to stay? Are there any good restaurants? What are the fans like?

"What a great reception we had today and it's only pro-am day."

Gulbis, regarded as one of the tour's best ambassadors, put on a public relations clinic yesterday, signing autographs and enjoying her pro-am day. Just a day earlier, LPGA officials said she was sick but came to the course anyway because of the buzz about her celebrity status.

Former city manager Jeff Malpass, one of her playing partners, couldn't believe the unusual putting grip Gulbis has been using. She grips it as if the putter shaft was a hockey stick. The blade on the putter is conventional.

"It should be huge here," Gulbis said. "I don't know why every single player that plays in Canada doesn't use it."

She calls the grip "a hammy" for unexplained reasons.

Like Gulbis, most of the top players got in their final practice rounds in the pro-am and then hit the driving range and putting green to fine-tune their games. Gulbis said the toughest feature is the rough, which is higher than most players expected it would be.

"It's going to be pretty difficult," she said. "It's one of the purest golf courses we've had all year. The greens are very big and the conditions are good. They could set it up like a major, if they wanted to."

Does she think she can finally win after going 0-for-128 in her LPGA career?

"I thought every week was my week when I came on tour. I can go out with the mentality that it is your week. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes you play great. Sometimes you don't."


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