LPGA star Natalie Gulbis has her own reality show on the Golf Channel, glamour-shot calendars and many endorsements, and she finished this season with something she’d never had before: an LPGA win. We caught up with her in Central Park to talk about her success on and off the course, her round with Tiger, her favorite John Daly story, and what it was like to finally win.
Going back to your first win at the Evian Masters in July, what’s the one thing you think about most?
Probably walking down the fairway from the tee shot to the green. I hit the ball on the green on a par 5 in two, and the girl I was playing against, she had hit the ball over the green. And just walking down the fairway and just trying to remember that moment with all the fans and what it looked like. It was something that I could always remember.
I’m sure it was kind of hard because you didn’t know at the time that you were going to win. It was not like you had a five-shot lead. Was it hard to think about that while still trying to be in the moment?
No, not at all. I was just trying to enjoy it. If it was my time, it was going to be. I was planning on making birdie, so I was definitely excited to go and hit the next shot. I wasn’t really in a state of nervousness, like, ‘Oh no, now I have to putt!’ I was looking forward to it, and just trying to enjoy it. It’s fun to be in the hunt, and it’s something we all enjoy, and when you get there you want to figure out how you get back there as fast as you can.
Have you been analyzing everything that went into your win?
I did right away. I did that night. I wanted to remember what I had done because I knew I wanted to get back there again. It wasn’t any different than any other week. Just that week I made a few extra putts and made a few less mistakes.
So that was the difference?
Just a few less mistakes. Over the course of an event, it’s only one or two shots that can be the difference from you winning the event or finishing in the top 10. And that was that week. I didn’t make a lot of bogeys. I was very consistent, and it worked.
In the Solheim Cup, you were in the final singles match. What was it like knowing the entire Solheim Cup could come down to your match?
I was definitely a lot more nervous going into Sunday of Solheim than I think I’d ever been. The captain put me in the anchor position, where I knew the matches were going to be tight and I knew how much my match was going to mean. And it’s a little bit different when you’re playing for yourself. I was playing for my team, I was playing for my coaches, playing for my country, and there was a lot more pressure in that situation.
When did you find out that it was wrapped up, and it wasn’t going to be on you to win it?
I had asked Meg Mallon before, ‘You got any last bits of advice for me?’ She has been in the Solheim Cup numerous times. She’s a great champion. She said, ‘Today, don’t look at the boards.’ And I’m a leaderboard watcher. I like to know what’s going on. She said, ‘Only take care of your match and make sure you win your match. Just take care of your match.’ So for 14 holes I was 4 up, and I was just grinding out my match, and my caddie Greg had asked me if I had looked at a leaderboard. And I said, ‘No! Meg Mallon said I couldn’t look at the leaderboard! Let’s just win our match.’ And he’s like, ‘OK.’ And I had caught a glimpse of a leaderboard, and for some reason that one was right in my face on 14. It said the U.S. had won. My match had made a difference in the momentum of the cup, but it didn’t make a difference in winning it. It was a great feeling.
When you started your match, the U.S. was up in a lot of matches. Do you think that would have affected you at all if you had known?
I think I may have played a little bit easier. I don’t think I would have played as hard knowing that we already had it clinched. It was a great thing for me, and it was a learning experience to just take care of my business on the golf course.
What’s it like with your TV show having cameras around you all the time?
Really easy. It’s a lot of fun. The cameras aren’t around me all the time. They’re just at special events. I’ve enjoyed watching the show and getting feedback from fans. It’s been a really good experience for me.
Have they ever caught you in a moment when you didn’t want them there?
Of course! There’s always a couple of moments. First thing in the morning, or a couple times you wish you weren’t there. But the Golf Channel’s great. I have a great relationship with the Golf Channel, and they really want the show to show me in the best light, so they protect me in that arena.
Have you ever been approached about playing in men’s golf tournaments?
I have. I’ve been approached to play in a couple in the states. But what I really like to play in is the team events. There’s an event I’ll be playing in called the ADT Skills Challenge where it’s a couple PGA Tour players, just a made-for-TV event. I like playing in skins events, the Wendy’s Three Tour [Challenge].
You had a back injury earlier this year, and you’ve said it made your swing better. How in the world did that happen?
One of the reasons attributed to the back injury was the fact that I was losing my posture at impact. And it’s something that I’d worked on for many years with my coach, Butch Harmon, and with my father growing up, and I wasn’t able to do it. It wasn’t until I actually hurt my back that it really forced me to keep my posture up. So it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
It taught me a lot about practice, and the quality of practice. It helped me to take better care of my body.
Your father helped you starting out and still gives you some advice, but as we all know your coach is Butch Harmon. Do the two sides ever clash?
My father’s my father. He was my instructor growing up. He knows my swing better than anybody. Since I turned professional, I’ve been getting lessons with Butch Harmon. Whenever I’m in town, I talk to him almost every day. I’m just really fortunate to have two great people in my life that have the same goal for me.
How did you develop your unique swing?
It was just my natural swing. I was always a feel player, and that’s kind of what I was born with.
And your putting stroke?
My putting stroke is very unorthodox. I actually was a very handsy putter, so I split my grip to take the hands out of my putting stroke.
Was there ever a time after the close losses that you questioned what you were doing? Was there a low moment?
I think the low moments are not when you get in the hunt and you lose. I think the lower moments are when you miss cuts, or you’re just not playing well. I think every athlete goes through that. But the closer I was getting, as long as I was in the top 10, it was great confidence and very positive for me to continue to work in the right direction.
You’ve proven you can be a consistent top-10 player. What will it take for you to be a consistent winner?
Clean up my game. Like you said, to win consistently you have to be a consistent player. You have to hit a lot of fairways, a lot of greens, and you have to do everything well. You can’t be great at driving and be a horrible putter. Every part of your game has to be the best, otherwise there’s somebody else who’s going to beat you.
You were college teammates with Lorena Ochoa at Arizona. Was there any indication back then that she was going to be the best golfer in the world?
She was a great junior player growing up. She won the junior worlds five, six times. She was a very dominant player in college, and she had a great work ethic. You could tell. She’s dominated at every level, and it’s no surprise that she’s successful on the LPGA Tour.
Do you think knowing her well can help you try to knock her off the top?
I think what’s helped me is I know her very well and her game well. We played against each other in college, and she won a lot of events and I won a lot of events. I think it’s easy to compare somebody that is so successful to yourself when you know you’re just as good as them.
Before Michelle Wie, you were the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event. Was there any pressure on you to skip college and go pro?
It was actually quite a bit different then. I turned professional when I was 19 years old and it was very, very unheard of. I went to school for one year, and it was very unusual to turn pro that early after not getting your college degree. Now it’s a lot more popular to turn professional right out of high school.
You’ve played golf with Donald Trump. What kind of business advice has he given you?
To never settle for anything but the best. I think Donald definitely has a slogan with his brand that he always has the best of the best. We’ve talked a lot about marketing and a lot about business, and I’ve learned a lot from him.
Has he tried to give you any golf tips?
I think at one time he told me to keep doing what I was doing. I’ve always been an unorthodox putter, and I remember I was frustrated with my putting one time, and I think he’s a very positive person, and he just gave me some nice positive, friendly feedback.
How many marriage proposals have you turned down?
Just a couple; couple fun ones from fans.
Has there been a guy who has produced a ring and gotten down on one knee?
No, no ring yet.
Would that be a key to success?
No, I don’t think so.
Does an average Joe have any shot of dating you?
Absolutely. I’m pretty open-minded with who I date.
Does he have to be a good golfer?
No. That’s not even close in the criteria. That’s way down on the list, of whether or not they can play golf. [Laughs]
You like to cook. What’s your signature dish?
I love to bake, actually. I love to bake cookies. But as far as dinners, probably just a good steak and special potatoes, or I make really good homemade chili.
You trade recipes on Tour?
Absolutely. Annika Sorenstam and I are real good friends, and a lot of times we rent a house and we’re always sharing recipes. Same thing with Cristie Kerr. She’s one of my good friends on Tour, and we’re always talking about different recipes. Or one night she’ll cook, one night I’ll cook.
Is there any trash talking on the LPGA Tour?
A little bit. Just fun stuff. Not anything that you wouldn’t [hear when you] go out and play with your friends. Everybody on Tour is really, really close.
You’ve done commercials with some pretty interesting guys — John Daly, George Lopez, Alice Cooper. I’m sure you have to have at least one funny story.
I have a great story about John Daly. I’ve played in a lot of charity events with him. I see him on the second hole or third hole, and he’s playing barefoot. And I asked him, ‘What are you doing? Why don’t you have any shoes on?’ And he said he had given them away to some fan on the first hole. I said, ‘J.D., how could you give away your shoes?’ And he said somebody really wanted them. That’s just the type of person he is. He’s such a giving person.
I saw on your show Butch was giving you some advice and he was talking about Tiger. Have you learned a lot about Tiger from working with Butch?
I’ve learned about all of the players he’s worked with. From Tiger, to now Phil Mickelson, Adam Scott, Greg Norman. He and his father and his brothers have worked with some of the best players of all time. So I enjoy stealing tips from every single one of them.
Have you played with Tiger?
I have. I played golf with him one time. I was incredibly intimidated. He hits the ball an absolute mile. He’s just an incredible player. It was fun to watch.
Did you beat him?
Heck no! No chance! (Laughs)
Was it hard to always hear the Anna Kournikova comparisons?
No, not at all.
I’m sure you had to be happy about moving on from that part of your life.
Well the best part of this whole scenario was the fact that I won an event. This has been a dream for me to win an event since I was a little girl. To be able to accomplish a goal, or a dream, supersedes anything.
The No. 1 player in women’s golf has been an international player for a number of years. What do you think it would mean if an American were No. 1?
That’s a good point. I’ve never even thought about that. You’re right, our No. 1 players have been international players, and maybe that will motivate a couple of the Americans to go after that title, too.
Is that your goal, to be No. 1?