A year ago, Natalie Gulbis suffered her third major back injury, and she thought her career might be finished. Now she’s pain-free, back on the LPGA Tour and poised to accomplish a career goal.
Gulbis will become the first LPGA player to appear in the American Century Championship since Annika Sorenstam in 2014 when she takes on the Edgewood Tahoe course for the July 13-15 tournament.
As a junior golfer, Gulbis would travel with her parents from Sacramento to the celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe, where she would wedge between dozens of people for autographs from superstar athletes. It's been a dream of hers to be on the other side of those signatures at the annual showcase.
Now 35, Gulbis is set to take on the likes of three-time tournament champion Mark Mulder, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former 49ers Hall of Famers Jerry Rice and Steve Young. Harrah's Tahoe sportsbook director Dave Cudney lists her at 10-1 to win the tournament; Mulder is the favorite at 5-2.
It might be better odds than she received from doctors about her golf future when back injuries derailed her career. But Gulbis is on the comeback trail. In April, she made the cut in an LPGA event for the first time since 2015 and finished tied for 42nd place at the HUGEL-JTBC LA Open.
The pain is gone, Gulbis said, but the preparation is more meticulous than ever. And it hasn't been easy – she has failed to make the cut in her last four tournaments.
“As every athlete that’s in the event knows, the longer you play the more susceptible you are to injuries and having surgeries, so for me I don’t practice as much,” Gulbis said in a recent conference call with reporters. “I have to be more careful with the tournaments that I play in and how many I play in a row.
“I have to be more selective, and then on a day-in-and-day-out basis, I do more physical therapy in times when I would normally practice six, seven hours a day.”
The first of her three back surgeries dating to 2008 was perhaps the worst. Gulbis told Golf Digest retirement was on her mind after undergoing a discectomy; walking up stairs and sitting in a car brought her major discomfort.
Two years later, Gulbis had the same surgery to treat bulging discs and found better results. Then she blew out her back in June 2017 during an awkward bunker shot. Gulbis told Golf Digest that her third discectomy went OK, but the recovery took longer than expected.
“I’ve always cautiously tried to do the most minimally invasive surgeries I can get to try to come out and compete, and they’ve worked out,” Gulbis said. “I’ve been able to play post-surgery, and now I’m 35 and I’m in my 18th year on tour, and I feel as good as I did when I was as a rookie.”
Gulbis, who made the boys golf team as a freshman at Granite Bay High School, became heavily involved in the sport early on while practicing at the Haggin Oaks Golf Complex and other area courses. Here, she took to David Sutherland, a Sacramento native and former PGA Tour member, as a mentor.
Sutherland, who now coaches women’s golf at Sacramento State, said Gulbis was confident enough to approach him and his brother Kevin, a professional golfer since 1987, despite them being nearly 20 years her elder.
“Natalie is not somebody who grew up just wanting to be a golfer," David Sutherland said. "She was really tall and athletic at a very young age, and she was not somebody who took a ton of lessons, who was sort of mechanical in the way that she played golf. She just ripped the ball.
“I think that she could’ve been an athlete at a high level in any number of sports. … She was the most athletic person I’ve seen play golf on the women’s side.”
That athleticism helped her at 14 become the youngest player to ever qualify for an LPGA event (Michelle Wie later claimed that record as a 12-year-old in 2002). In that tournament, Gulbis said she realized she wanted to become a professional golfer.
Twenty-one years later, she's practicing her putting ahead of the American Century Championship.
The tournament will feature a purse of $600,000 and a winner's share of $125,000 – a far cry from the 25 cents she used to earn for every lost golf ball she found for her father when she was 6 years old.
“I love being back on the tour and I love competing,” Gulbis said, “and I’m just glad to be able to play golf without pain.”