Monday, July 30, 2007

Gulbis Nabs 1st LPGA Win

For the LPGA's most marketable player, six long years of heartache and near misses finally ended as Natalie Gulbis broke through to get her first tour victory in the Evian Masters yesterday in France. Undoubtedly the most popular player on tour amongst both the fans and her peers, Natalie nearly won a year ago before falling to Mi Hyun Kim in the third hole of a playoff. Over the years, Natalie has been very unfairly compared to a certain tennis player - one who failed to have any major success on her tour. Many fail to realize that this victory for Natalie was just a matter of time in coming. She earned over a million dollars in 2005 and finished sixth on the money list while scoring 12 top 10 finishes, coming in third twice. Last year, she didn't do quite as well, but still managed to finish 16th on the money list including the aforementioned playoff loss and a third place finish to go along with five other top 10's. Due mostly to some back issues, Natalie was off to a slow start in 2007, only placing in the top 10 once. Little did we know that her breakthrough win would finally come yesterday.

In winning her first tournament, Natalie played steadier than the rest of the field. While perhaps as many as ten players, including Lorena Ochoa and Annika Soranstam, had chances to win the tournament, none of them could make the putts when it counted. Natalie began the day at two under par, four strokes off the lead of Juli Inkster. Inkster quickly faltered, bogeying the second and fourth holes. A few groups ahead of her, Natalie shot a three-under-par 33 on the front nine to seize the lead at five under par. Natalie had several opportunities to stretch her lead on the back nine, but the putts would not fall and she in fact bogeyed the 14th hole to fall to four under par. Ochoa spent much of the back nine tied with Natalie for the lead, before a costly bogey on the 18th hole would leave her one stroke back. Soranstam, Natalie's playing partner on the day, would need an eagle on the 18th to tie for the lead, but she would have to settle for par and a tie for sixth. Inkster would also have her chances, but three bogeys to go with a birdie from 14 through 17 left her at three under par.

As she took the tee at 15, Jeong Jang stood at one under par, three back of Natalie, Ochoa and Inkster, and only probably hoping to get a top 10 finish. Jang birdied 15 and 16 though to get close. She than made another birdie on 18 to get to four under par and into a playoff with Natalie. The first playoff hole was the par-5 18th hole. Jang won the honor and hit a clean drive into the center of the fairway, as did Natalie. Jang's approach shot to the green went over, while Natalie hit a perfect shot, landing about 25 feet from the pin. Jang pitched to about fifteen feet to set up a long birdie effort.

Natalie then hit her eagle putt to within a foot for a tap-in birdie. Jang knew that she would need to hole her putt to have a chance. Her putt quickly veered off to the left and Natalie finally would have her moment in the sun. She made the putt (see picture at left) and raised her hands triumphantly in the air to celebrate her first win. Tears of joy came from her, she then hugged her caddie, her Mom and her longtime friend and recent major winner Cristie Kerr.

This is not just a huge victory for Natalie, but a huge victory for women's golf in general. Although Soranstam and Ochoa may be the tour's two best players, Natalie is undoubtedly the most popular and marketable due to her stunning looks. Many in the sports world hadn't taken Natalie seriously until now, citing the fact that she had never won. Few know that there is probably no one in the game that works harder at her game than Natalie. Her coach Butch Harmon (who also coaches Phil Mickelson) has actually had to tell her to not put in so much time with her game, but to just enjoy life a little more... With her much-awaited first win, you can bet that Natalie's definitely going to be enjoying life on the LPGA tour more than ever now. Congratulations, Natalie on a much-deserved first victory!


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