Gulbis good for golf

Natalie Gulbis watches her drive from the 6th tee during the Blackhawk Tour Challenge at the...

Natalie Gulbis watches her drive from the 6th tee during the Blackhawk Tour Challenge at the Blackhawk Golf Club in Edmonton on Monday, Aug. 14, 2006. (Edmonton Sun/Jason Franson)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 7:50 AM ET

Natalie Gulbis hasn't won a pro tournament yet and she's already one of the most popular women on the LPGA.

With her own reality show, calendar, swimwear collection and hubba hubba website, the 22-year-old bombshell is fast becoming the face - and legs - of women's golf.

Lots of other women have her talent, and some, even, boast similar striking looks, but only Michelle Wie, another non-winner, can generate her kind of buzz.

Why? Because, as her friend Peter Jacobsen explains, she gets it.

"A lot of times you'll hear people say an athlete gets it or he doesn't get it," said Jacobsen, playing in yesterday's Blackhawk Tour Challenge with Gulbis, Tom Watson and Paul Azinger.

"More than anything, Natalie gets it. She is so personable. We do a lot of events like these and sometimes we'll have to stop in the middle of a round because Natalie is back signing autographs or posing for pictures. She'll stay there 10 minutes. You have to say 'Natalie, let's go.' She really cares.

"She does what our great friend Payne Stewart did. She'll reach out into the crowd and grab the spectators and pull them into our world. She does it better than a lot of men ... she's certainly the best woman who does it, probably in the history of the game."

MORE THAN KOURNIKOVA

Ranked 16th on the LPGA and a member of the last U.S. Solheim Cup team, Gulbis is much, much more than an Anna Kournikova cheesecake factory, but she also understands that marketing and promotion are every bit as important - to her career and her sport - as winning. While not everyone agrees with her marketing choices, she's done more for the LPGA, in terms of sponsorship and exposure, than any LPGA winner over the last two years.

"You grow the game any way you can," said Gulbis, making no apologies for playing the sex symbol card. "We're showing that we can be attractive and athletic and really good too. We go out and play as hard as we can, but we all have different personalities. So we dress and act the way that fits our personality... and hopefully you guys keep talking about us."

That's the key, keeping the fans and sponsors happy. In an age when many sports and athletes are alienating fans by being elitist, inaccessible or criminal, others, like Gulbis, Watson, Azinger and Jacobsen (who jokes that sales of his own Speedo calendar are uncomfortably slow), get it.

"I think days like this are important for the players and the fans," said Jacobsen, who learned the importance of reaching out to the galleries from the likes of Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino. "I can't imagine how popular a player like Lee Trevino would be if he was in his prime today, the way he interacted with the people. So many of the players today, when they're out on the course, look like they're contemplating a proctology exam."

'GOOD FOR THE GAME'

And some, the most popular ones, look like they're genuinely glad to be there. Phil Mickelson signs hats for an hour after every round, flashes a big smile on the course, and they love him. John Daly, for all his flaws, is a man of the people, and the people eat him up.

It's not a complicated formula, being nice to the fans, but it takes effort - more effort that many of today's athletes are willing to give.

"You make sacrifices," said Gulbis, who shot a two-under 69 yesterday on her detour to Edmonton. "This typically would have been a normal day off, but this is good for the game. Hopefully we've made some new fans, and I'm doing what I love to do right now."

Watson and Jacobsen also shot 69, while Azinger birdied three of the first four holes en route to 67.


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