PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas – Natalie Gulbis soaked in the beauty of the sapphire seas crashing against the white-sand beach along the eighth hole Thursday at the Ocean Club Golf Course.
She was feeling good in the first round of the Pure Silk Bahamas Classic, her left hip feeling strong in her first LPGA start since undergoing surgery to repair two tears in the labrum almost three months ago.
She was feeling appreciative about being back in the game, back with old friends, back on the tour that means so much to her.
She was feeling something else, too. She was feeling competitive fire rekindling more quickly than anyone would have expected.
With a birdie chance at the 18th hole just sliding past the cup, Gulbis nearly seized a share of the lead. With a 5-under-par 68, she’s in early contention, one shot behind Brooke Pancake. She’s tied for second with Brittany Lincicome and Inbee Park.
“It just feels great to be playing golf again,” Gulbis said. “It’s fun for me to get to play without pain.
“I’ve been working hard on my swing, because it’s important for me to come out and play well in these events. They’re going to determine what I can qualify for and what I don’t. So, I need to play well.”
Gulbis, 32, has been slowed the last two seasons with serious physical challenges. Malaria’s lingering effects slowed her in 2013 and the hip injury shut her down for most of the second half of last season.
Though she had walked a full 18 holes just one other time since having surgery Thanksgiving week, Gulbis turned in a bogey-free scorecard in her return. She liked seeing her name on the traditional, wooden leaderboard above the 18th hole at the Ocean Club.
“I’m always pleased to be on a leaderboard,” Gulbis said. “I’m always pleased to shoot a score like that. It’s nice to see that what you’ve been working on is working, because you don’t know until you get out there in competition, hitting shots.”
Gulbis, 32, has had more than her share of physical challenges. She has also battled back problems for a number of years.
“Sometimes I feel like I’ve been injured since 2009,” Gulbis said.
Gulbis has been in physical therapy, undergoing platelet-rich plasma treatment (blood spinning) and in hyperbaric chambers more than she has been on the golf course the last six months.
“I tried almost everything to come back,” Gulbis said.
That’s why Thursday’s start was so promising. Gulbis still has large ambitions. She wants to add a second victory to her Evian Championship title in ’07. She wants to make the U.S. Solheim Cup team going to Germany later this year. With so much time missed with injury and illness, Gulbis has recorded just one top-10 finish over the last two seasons. She needs to chalk up a lot of Solheim points over the next seven months to make the United States team for the fourth time in her career.
The Bahamas is a perfect place for Gulbis to make her comeback.
“I’m a beach girl,” Gulbis said. “I do all my workouts on the beach here, and I go in the ocean every day.”
Gulbis is hoping to hop a boat to go fishing with friends in the Atlantic while she’s here. She’d love to claim both a trophy fish and a golf trophy when she leaves Paradise Island Sunday night.