Natalie Gulbis Is More than Just a Pretty Face

Ben GibsonSenior Analyst IJanuary 9, 2009

It's okay, you can say it.  Every time an attractive female athlete bursts on to the scene, the scariest two words in the sports world usually follow.

Anna Kournikova.

Kournikova has become a metaphor for any beautiful female athlete whose buzz off the playing field far surpass that on it.

Her tennis skills took a backseat to the glitz and glamour and that decision turned her into a punch line.  Kournikova's hype was huge, her results were anemic.

Since then, any woman who could turn a few heads has to prove she can win to avoid similar criticism.  Beauty has become a blessing on Madison Avenue and a curse in the locker room.

Just ask Natalie Gulbis.

Gulbis and her fellow tourmate Paula Creamer are the figureheads of women's golf here in America.  Their looks and their games have certainly helped earn them sponsorships, legions of fans and even TV commercials.  It just hasn't earned them a major.

Still, Creamer became the youngest LPGA tour winner ever (in four rounds) at the Sybase Classic at age 18.

She then won the Evian Masters a few months later by eight shots.

That helped take a big monkey off her back as she could avoid those, "well what has she won?" questions from the media and the fans.

The road for Gulbis was a little rockier towards respect and redemption.

In Gulbis's first five years on tour, she won zero events.  Nothing.

She had some impressive finishes certainly, including four consecutive finishes in the top 10 in the LPGA majors, but that almost does not count. 

Despite not winning a single event, she finished sixth on the LPGA money list in 2005.  That is perhaps a more impressive feat than people give her credit for, but that did not stop the criticism. 

Instead of talking about her swing people wanted to talk about her relationship at the time with Steeler quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Well, redemption finally came on a similar stage of triumph for her friend Creamer.

In 2007, at age 24, Gulbis finally claimed a victory at the Evian Masters in a playoff over Jeong Jang.

The victory had to feel even sweeter knowing that it was not too long ago that Gulbis lost in a playoff to Mi Hyun Kim.  That tournament appeared to be the breakthrough round before she fell apart on the back nine to squander a fourth round lead.

Gulbis was growing up and was proving to everyone that there was more to her than photo shoots and reality TV shows.

It seemed everything was finally falling into place and that, as Raymond Weil put it, "once she starts winning she's going to be a megastar."

Well the 2008 season was not the storybook many had hoped or imagined.

Natalie Gulbis finished 56th on the money list last year, a drastic drop from being 12th in 2007.

Her highlight, a ninth place finish in the Ricoh British Open. However, that was a tournament where she carded a strong fourth round and the late weather put her in contention when she really was not a factor for a victory.

It padded the statistics but it did nothing to stop the frustration of losing.

The problem?  Accuracy.

Gulbis (like Creamer) has built her game around a rather odd-looking swing where she dips down at impact and it got away from her in 2008. 

Gulbis still remained a fairly accurate driver, but she ranked 82nd on tour in greens in regulation.  She also had a dismal sand saves record, getting up and down 17 times out of 55 attempts.

These problems meant that Gulbis only had 17 rounds under par also season long, a tie for 70th overall on tour.

Still, 2009 brings a new year and new opportunities for the 26 year old.  Gulbis has taken some time off to recuperate and get herself mentally and physically ready for another season.

Unlike others, she has done a good job striking a balance between celebrity and athlete.  She has still taken time to practice and hone her skill for a strong 2009 season as well as enjoy the opportunities given to her from her status.

Undoubtedly, Gulbis may face her fair share of critics in 2009 who believe that 2008 is a trend and not a fluke. 

Still, skeptics cannot say anything she hasn't heard before and she has proven them wrong before.

So get your binoculars ready, you're in for quite a sight in 2009.