As one of the LPGA’s most popular ambassadors, Natalie Gulbis has become a tour treasure.
The impact she makes outside the ropes, with her tireless promotional appearances, her generous devotion to so many causes, makes her one of the LPGA’s most valuable assets no matter where her name sits on the leaderboard.
Gulbis, however, is eager to see if she can begin making an impact between the ropes again after being slowed the last two seasons with some serious physical challenges.
At 32, Gulbis is coming off surgery to repair two tears to her left hip flexor. She had a laser procedure Thanksgiving week and spent more than a month without touching a club. She just began practicing again last week. While she won’t be ready to tee it up in the LPGA season opener next week at the Coates Golf Championship in Ocala, Fla., she’s targeting the following week’s Pure Silk Bahamas Classic for her return to competition.
“I’m just now starting to test it,” Gulbis told GolfChannel.com Thursday after an appearance at the adidas booth during the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. “I want to get back playing, but being injured quite a bit of my career, I’ve learned I have to be smart coming back the right way.
“When I go back out, I want to go out feeling like I can win events.”
Between the hip injury last year, and her bout with malaria the year before, Gulbis has struggled to find her best form. Malaria’s lingering effects slowed her early in 2013 and her hip injury shut her down for most of the second half of 2014.
Gulbis played the U.S. Women’s Open with hip pain in the middle of this last summer, and she paid a price for it. She was sidelined for almost four months after that while trying to rehab through the injury and avoid surgery. She did not play the tour again until the Asian swing in October.
“That wasn’t smart, coming back to play Asia,” Gulbis said. “I wasn’t ready, and the hip didn’t feel right.”
Gulbis made her final start of the 2014 season at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in Mexico in November before shutting down again to have the hip fixed. She walked 18 holes for the first time since surgery earlier this week, when she returned to Mexico to play with Ochoa in a charity event there.
“I feel great,” Gulbis said. “I can hit balls for three or four hours on the range, but it’s different when you’re out competing, and you have to hit a shot around a tree, or in the rough, or from a plugged bunker lie. I haven’t had to hit from any uncomfortable lies yet.”
Gulbis said she will know before getting on a plane Sunday before the Pure Silk Bahamas whether she’s ready for that event. If she isn’t, she will wait another month to make her start at the LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix in March.
It’s a big year for Gulbis. With all the physical challenges, she has recorded just one top-10 finish over the last two seasons. She still has big goals. She would love to add a second LPGA victory to her Evian Championship title in ’07, and she wants to make the U.S. Solheim Cup team going to Germany late this year. She will need to chalk up a lot of points to make her fourth American team.
“Starting with Phoenix, I’m going to be playing everything,” Gulbis said.
If there is lingering frustration having to deal with illness and injury over two years, Gulbis doesn’t show it. She got married a year ago, and she’s beaming about how much she’s enjoying her life and veteran status on tour.
“This is my 15th year on tour,” Gulbis said. “It’s hard to believe. I’m not getting any younger, but I’m really ambitious. I would love to go play that Solheim Cup this year. Those team events are the favorite weeks of my career.”
They’re fueling her fire for a return to form.