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Natalie Gulbis: Sports Prodigy

[Note: Hear interview with Natalie Gulbis on YOUNG MONEY Radio.]

It’s very rare for young people to actually live out their childhood dreams. Natalie Gulbis is one of those rare exceptions. Gulbis knew she wanted to be a professional athlete before she had even reached high school. Now Gulbis wants to be the best female golfer on the planet. She may already be the most popular.

Her golf skills and photogenic looks have turned the 23-year-old California native into one of the country’s most marketable young athletes. She has already produced two swimsuit calendars, starred in her own cable television reality show and been featured as a character in a Tiger Woods video game.

Astonishingly, Gulbis never took a golf lesson until she turned pro. She started playing golf at age four taught by her father, John, a retired county probation officer who still mentors her career. Gulbis was raised in a working-class family that struggled at times to pay for their daughter’s expenses in a sport usually reserved for the well-to-do. Gulbis is proud of how she groomed her game playing at public courses and fondly remembers searching the newspaper ads for golf course deals and discounts on driving range balls.

But the lack of a privileged upbringing did not slow her down. She was the best player (and only female) on her high school boys’ golf team and won several amateur tournaments in her teens. Gulbis received an athletic scholarship to play golf at the University of Arizona where she earned All-American honors as a freshman. She left school after one year to join the Ladies Professional Golf Association tour in 2002.

DID YOU ALWAYS KNOW YOU WANTED TO BE A PROFESSIONAL GOLFER? Yes. I always knew that I loved sports. I used to go out and play the sport with my father. He used to love to play golf. I started playing more competitive golf and started winning more. I think winning definitely gets you to continue to practice and work hard. From about [age] 10 or 11 on I knew that I wanted to play professionally and I kept working at it until I got here.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR LIFE AS A COLLEGE STUDENT. WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE EXPERIENCES? My most memorable experience was definitely playing on a team. I’d never really played on a team before. I’d played on a high school men’s team but golf is an individual sport and it was quite a different experience to play on a college team. It’s a lot more pressure. Golf is an individual sport so you’re playing for yourself. But when you’re playing on a team there are other people who are influenced by your scores and your performances. From an academic standpoint it was always a difficult balance trying to balance school and practice and working out. I had a really good year performance wise and academically.

WAS LEAVING SCHOOL TO BECOME A PRO A TOUGH DECISION FOR YOU? Really, really tough. I loved school. I was a good student and I loved to learn. I wanted to take my golf game to the next level though. I remember making a commitment that the first $100,000 that I made I would put aside in an account that would be a security in case I ever got hurt or if something happened, then I would be back to school.

YOUR FATHER HAS BEEN A MAJOR INFLUENCE IN YOUR LIFE AND CAREER. DO YOU HAVE ANY OTHER ROLE MODELS YOU LOOK UP TO? I always looked up to certain athletes. I was a big fan of [soccer player] Mia Hamm and I used to love anybody that played on the Oakland A’s such as Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco. My father used to take me to a lot of professional sporting events. He used to show me what it would be like to be a professional athlete and to play in front of the big crowds and to do that for a living. We used to go to a lot of professional golf events, tennis events and track events so I always loved to follow sports.

WHAT IS YOUR LIFE LIKE AS A TOURING PRO? WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE TOUR AND WHAT’S THE TOUGHEST PART FOR YOU? I play probably 35 events a year and travel about 45 weeks or so a year. The highlights are definitely anytime you have the opportunity to win – being in the hunt. I love the competitive aspect of sports and just playing. [My favorite part of] being a professional athlete in general is being around the fans. It’s so fun to play in front of big galleries and to meet fans after and sign autographs for little kids. The toughest part is the travel. Travel has gotten so hard now especially with all the new security regulations. Second to that would probably be the time differences when you travel overseas. You miss your family and friends a lot because you’re on the road all the time.

YOU SEEM VERY INVOLVED IN EVERY ASPECT OF MANAGING YOUR CAREER. WAS THAT SOMETHING YOU HAD IN MIND ALL ALONG BEFORE YOU TURNED PRO? No. Not at all. I thought for sure that my only priorities were going to be practicing and playing competitive golf, my nutrition and my workouts. But with golf there are so many opportunities to be involved with different business people. You meet so many amazing people. There will be a time when I’m not going to be able to play golf competitively. I want to be prepared for whatever is going to come after I stop playing golf. I want to take advantage of the opportunities through the people that I’ve met along the way.

WHOSE IDEA WAS IT TO STAR IN YOUR OWN REALITY SHOW? It was actually my father’s idea. It was right when the reality shows were becoming popular. There were not a lot of athletes doing reality shows and there hadn’t been a golfer yet. [My father] and a team of agents and marketing people that were surrounding me at the time came together so we said ‘Let’s do it. Let’s show what it really takes to be a professional athlete and all the interesting opportunities that we get to do away from golf.’

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES OF DOING THE SHOW? The Golf Channel is actually really good because they only shoot the reality part of the show when I’m doing something that hasn’t already been shown. They’ll show me practicing and working out one time then they’ll show something different. They may only be shooting a day or two a week. It’s a little uncomfortable still at times having the cameras around. You become self conscious when cameras are around but you get over that pretty fast because they have final edit [of the video tapes] and they’re just trying to show you in a really good light. We have a lot of fun with it and I’ve gotten to do some really neat things over the last couple of years. For example, this year my father and I were building a custom motorcycle with Metropolitan Choppers and they ended up showing the whole process. That was a lot of fun for me.

YOU MADE THE JUMP FROM STARVING COLLEGE STUDENT TO FINANCIALLY SUCCESSFUL GOLF PRO PRETTY SMOOTHLY. I had a very good team around me. I think that was definitely the key to the successes that I’ve had off the golf course. They not only surrounded me with [business] ideas like the calendar and a website but they also did a lot of that stuff so I could work on my golf game and still promote the sport.

SAVING THE FIRST $100,000 YOU MADE SOUNDS PRETTY UNUSUAL FOR A PERSON THAT YOUNG WHO COMES INTO THAT KIND OF MONEY. DID YOU LEARN THAT PRUDENCE FROM YOUR FATHER? It’s definitely from my upbringing. My parents have always instilled a principle that you can’t take anything for granted. You never know what’s going to happen and you always have to be prepared. I just wanted to make sure that when I did turn professional that if something did not work out that I would still be okay. I would always have something to fall back on and that provided me that security. I also had enough financial security when I turned professional with my sponsors because it’s very expensive to travel. Players on tour can spend anywhere from a minimum of $50,000 or $60,000 to $100,000 in travel. You’re traveling internationally and staying in a hotel 50 weeks a year. It gets very expensive.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE GOALS? Future goals in golf would definitely be to be the number one player; to work and strive for that and be in the hunt every week. I love to compete. I absolutely love to be in the hunt and have the chance to win tournaments. When you’re not in the hunt it makes you want to go back the next morning, get up as early as you can and work to figure out why you weren’t in the hunt the week before.

Hear interview with Natalie Gulbis on YOUNG MONEY Radio.



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