NAPLES, Fla. – Natalie Gulbis has probably won more hearts to the LPGA than any other player in the game today.
She has won fans. She has won sponsors. She has won so much goodwill as a tireless promoter of the women’s game with her cover-girl looks, quick smile and outgoing personality.
She just wishes she had won more trophies.
Come Sunday, Gulbis will be looking to win the most prized tournament trophy in the women’s game outside the majors at the CME Group Titleholders, the LPGA’s season-ending event.
The trophy comes with a $700,000 first-place prize, the biggest winner’s check in women’s golf.
With a 7-under-par 65 Saturday at Tiburon, Gulbis moved into a share of the lead with Gerina Piller (67) and Pornanong Phatlum (67).
They are at 11 under overall atop a jammed leaderboard with seven players within two shots of the lead.
A shootout appears in store over the final round with some of the biggest names in women’s golf in contention. Stacy Lewis (63) is just two shots back. So is Lexi Thompson (67). Michelle Wie (66) is three back, with Inbee Park (69) and Cristie Kerr (71) both just four back.
Gulbis, 30, broke through to win the Evian Masters for her first and only LPGA title in 2007. Gulbis says she is pining for another victory.
“It seems like a very long time ago, and I think about it all day long,” Gulbis said. “Every single time I practice, or I work out, I'm reminded that I haven't won an individual title since 2007, and even though I've had good finishes, or played good golf, it's still not an individual win. So it's something that definitely motivates me. It’s something that I want to achieve again.”
It would add to the season-ending fireworks in Gulbis’ life and take some of the sting out of the disappointment this year brought early.
Gulbis is engaged to be married next month to Josh Rodarmel, a former Yale quarterback and co-founder of Power Balance bracelets and Vrou, a women’s nutrition company.
“I’m not planning a big wedding, so I haven't been stressed out with any of that,” Gulbis said. “But it's really fun being engaged, because everybody throws you parties, which is awesome. Like your family throws you a party, your friends on tour throw you parties, every host family that I've been to this year, they like to celebrate. So it's been really positive and exciting.”
The year is ending so much better than it started.
In her first start of the year in February, Gulbis remembers being bitten by a mosquito at the Honda LPGA Thailand. She withdrew feeling ill at the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore the following week and was diagnosed there with malaria. She kept trying to come back too early and twice relapsed. She didn’t return to tour play until six weeks after becoming ill.
“Many of you guys know me, and I'm not very good at resting,” Gulbis said. “I think, as an athlete, they said you're probably going to battle this for the next six months, and you should probably take the next two months and just relax.”
Gulbis thought a couple weeks would do it, and she headed back to the golf course.
“I kept on trying to get back to play, and every single time I would get back out and play, I would relapse,” Gulbis said. “And they would say, `We told you this was going to happen.’”
Gulbis finally made her return at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, but she still didn’t feel completely right. She didn’t feel back to normal until the Wegmans LPGA Championship in June.
“Rochester was the first event where I wasn’t beyond exhausted, where I could actually practice after a round and started feeling better,” Gulbis said. “From Rochester on, I felt good, felt back to normal.”
On Wednesday night at Tiburon, the LPGA’s Tournament Owners Association presented Gulbis its Ambassadors Award, honoring the work she does promoting their events and women’s golf.
Gulbis will be working Sunday to bring some more hardware home. She said there’s nothing like playing in the final Sunday pairing in an LPGA event with a chance to win.
“It’s nerve racking, but it's awesome."