Trio fashions lead of 1

Pretty in pink, she can color leader board, too

Lpga Championship

Through Sunday * Bulle Rock Golf Course, Havre de Grace

Golf

June 10, 2005|By David Steele

AND NOW, an update on Natalie Gulbis' quest to take over the world:

Her Web site, nataliegulbis.com, is still up and running, of course. But her online journal is a week or so behind. Better get on that - after all, she left the course yesterday afternoon with the lead in the LPGA Championship after one round, a stroke ahead of Annika Sorenstam, yet.

While awaiting a new entry, though, perusers of her site can get her 2005 calendar and pre-order next year's. Chances are that the '06 will include a shot of her walking up the 18th fairway at Bulle Rock, to the roar of the crowd, including a sizable male contingent as impressed with her pink short-skirt ensemble ("I'm following The Pink Thing," one fan was overheard acknowledging to a friend) as with her short game.

No big surprise, of course. The LPGA is bent on telling you, in a massive ad campaign that kicked off this week, that "These Girls Rock," and that Gulbis is one of the chief rockers.

Then, of course, there's "Natalie TV," coming later this month on The Golf Channel. The crew is not on site this weekend, but it will follow her two weeks from now at the U.S. Women's Open in suburban Denver. It will record her throwing out the first ball at a Rockies game.

It might not catch Gulbis in the position of tourney leader, though. This is unexplored territory for a 22-year-old who has left few territories unexplored if they lead to maximum exposure. She's ninth on the money list this year and winless for her career, but probably has more Web hits than the rest of the tour combined.

She's hot, most agree, but in the context of what she did yesterday in the season's second major, she's never been hot like this.

Gulbis caught and passed Sorenstam on the last five holes of the day, birdieing each one. It was a dramatic finish for a threesome that had become a perfect storm of allure involving the opposing forces of publicity for the LPGA Tour. At one end, Sorenstam, out-Tiger-ing Tiger on the women's tour; on the other, Gulbis, on the verge of out-Annika-ing Annika for better and for worse. The group was destined to draw the biggest gallery from the moment it was announced.

They gave the fans an eyeful - of high-quality golf. Even the player expected to be the third wheel, the relatively unheralded Gloria Park, was pulled into the vortex and also pushed Sorenstam hard until the last couple of holes. As they approached the seventh tee - their 16th hole of the day - the trio faced a leader board with their names at the top: Sorenstam up by two over her playing partners.

After Gulbis knocked down consecutive birdie No. 3 on the seventh, closed to within one of Sorenstam, and sashayed off to the next tee, two nearby fans had this exchange:

"She's unbelievable."

"And she's tough."

Yes, the talk was gradually turning to golf. Which Gulbis certainly enjoys, since that's why she's here. Pretty much everyone else on FHM Magazine's Sexiest Women in America list has her own Web site, but only Gulbis butts heads with the likes of Sorenstam for supremacy in her field.

Gulbis seems aware that many view her as squeezing golf in around her photo shoots and her canoodling with Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who kept a low profile yesterday).

"The perception is fine," she said. "I don't do that much; my agents, my father, they kind of do it all." Because of that, she said, "I get to work on my golf game and do the things I like to do."

None of her tour colleagues begrudge her the attention she's drawn to herself, Gulbis said: "They're incredibly supportive. A couple of players have Web sites now." No other reality shows yet, but it's early.

Sorenstam, by the way, doesn't even have a Web site - just eight majors, 61 career wins and the dream of a Grand Slam. She exhibits no envy of the attention Gulbis draws. After all, the crowd there only to follow Gulbis was in the minority; most were there to see history continuing to be made.

What got Sorenstam juiced up was the level of competition yesterday. "It's always fun to play with somebody who is playing well," she said. "You hope the momentum and the breaks will be contagious." They were, obviously, since Sorenstam found herself looking up on the board at her playing mate.

"She rolled in a putt on the last hole," Sorenstam said, "and I wanted to make mine. I wanted to show her, `It's only Thursday, but you're younger, and I can putt, too."'

Sorenstam isn't exactly stressed about trailing after one round, nor is Gulbis rehearsing her trophy-presentation speech. The former has been in this spotlight before; Gulbis has been in a completely different one, but definitely not this one.

It's hard to imagine the LPGA being happier about where both of them are this morning.

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