With rare exceptions, the ladies of the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. Tour are not the sort of half-dressed hotties who fill the pages of laddie magazines. Then there's Natalie Gulbis. The 21-year-old tour pro steams up the November issue of FHM magazine with a photo spread that includes outfits seldom seen on the greens and an interview that poses such burning long-game questions as: "Can you tell anything about a guy by the length of his drive?"
Gulbis' decision to pose for FHM wasn't one she came to alone, however. A PR firm, retained by the LPGA, aided in soliciting the shoot, as it did an offer for Gulbis to appear on Howard Stern's radio gabfest. (Gulbis turned that one down.) "As our players become recognizable celebrities, more unconventional media outlets are becoming interested. If Natalie is comfortable [posing in FHM], we're supportive of the decision" says Commissioner Ty Votaw, who has been urging players to leverage their looks and charm, as well as their swings.
FHM isn't the first place Gulbis has bared her navel for fun and profit. In July the 21-year-old golfer's calendar was pulled from souvenir shelves at the U.S. Women's Open when officials of the U.S. Golf Assn. deemed it too risqué. "I'm wearing bathing suits and workout clothes, basically. Besides the USGA, I haven't heard the word 'provocative' used about the calendars," says Gulbis, who seems genuinely baffled by the hubbub.
Gulbis and her advisers, led by her dad, John, have turned her sex appeal into one of the more impressive marketing machines on the LPGA Tour. Her deals with, among others, TaylorMade-adidas, Titleist, MET-Rx, GeniSoy, and EA Sports will generate more than a half-million dollars this year, according to John.
The attention also has gained Gulbis new cachet with fans. Her Web site, nataliegulbis.com, where visitors can join a booster club, examine her pinup poses, or buy a calendar, has logged a half-million hits in 2004. She pockets up to $15,000 for about six corporate outings a year. And the LPGA loves to feature her for publicity purposes. This year the tour slapped her likeness, along with those of two other players, on its LPGA-sponsored race car at the Daytona 500. Not bad, considering that in three years on the ladies' tour, she hasn't won a tourney and ranked 42nd on the money list in the 2004 season, with $277,000.
"KEEP IT CLEAN"
Gulbis, a golfing prodigy who grew up in Sacramento and won the California amateur title at age 14, is undeniably serious about her game. During the off-season she can spend hours in the gym and then end the workout with a five-mile jog. She sweats almost as much at the course. Her swing coach, Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods's former golf guru, has helped her add distance to her drives, but the analytical Gulbis isn't satisfied. She points out that she ranked a respectable 20th in birdies collected this year but still finished well down the earnings list. "That's kind of an interesting stat. It tells me I need to work harder on my short game," she says.
Her father gave the nod to the FHM photo shoot but was there to "keep it clean" and tasteful. "This is an athlete, an LPGA professional. We're not looking for a 'skin' type of thing," he says. "No way she's wearing underwear or a negligee." Still, some of the outfits don't leave a whole lot to the imagination. With Gulbis leading the way, the LPGA seems intent on shedding its dowdy image, even if that means showing off more than a smooth putting stroke.
By Mark Hyman