Natalie Gulbis finished in a four-way tie for third place, but the 18-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., looked like a champion-in- waiting as she strode from the 18th green Oct. 13 at the LPGA International’s Legends Course.
Wearing a smile and a brand-new hat with TaylorMade imprinted on it, Gulbis carried herself like some of the more experienced professionals she had just battled with and beaten over four days in the annual Final Qualifying Tournament.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in yet,” Gulbis said after signing her scorecard for a final-round 72. “It’s a little overwhelming right now. I’ve always wanted to do this, and I knew I could do it.”
Gulbis, who left the University of Arizona after an impressive freshman year, was one of 18 Q-School competitors who secured exempt cards for 2002. Nine-year veteran Suzanne Strudwick of England, who was Rookie of the Year in 1993, won the event with a 7-under-par 281 total, four strokes ahead of France’s Jean-Marie Busuttil, formerly of the SBC/Futures Tour.
With their exempt cards, all 18 players are guaranteed a full slate of LPGA tournaments next year. Forty other Q-School finishers were granted nonexempt status, meaning their playing schedules are dependent on openings in the fields.
For Gulbis, though, the security of an exempt card was just another feather in her smart-looking blue cap. At midnight on the eve of the Q-School’s first round, the would-be rookie signed an equipment and apparel contract with TaylorMade-Adidas, and a ball deal was in the works, her agent said.
While comparisons with another young talent – 17-year-old Ty Tryon, who recently landed endorsement money based on potential – were hard to ignore, Chris Murray of Imani Sports said Gulbis showed her value when she blew away the competition at the August sectional qualifier in Venice, Fla. Gulbis shot an 11-under-par 277 total, eight strokes ahead of the nearest challenger.
As for the value of the contract, Murray would only boast: “It’s an extremely solid contract, let’s put it that way.”
Gulbis and Catherine Cartwright of Bonita Springs, Fla., will be the two youngest players on tour next year. Gulbis turns 19 in January, two months ahead of Cartwright, who skipped college and went straight to the Futures Tour, on which she finished ninth on its 2001 money list. At Q-School, Cartwright wasn’t as fortunate as her contemporary and finished in the pack of players who gained nonexempt status.
As a wunderkind, Gulbis has blazed trails before. In 1997, when she was 14, Gulbis Monday-qualified for a spot in the Longs Drug Challenge, gaining a place in history as the youngest player to qualify for an LPGA event.
“I’ve been wanting to do this ever since that day,” she said.
Now she is getting ready to blaze a new trail as a teen on tour.
But Gulbis won’t be alone on her travels. After all, someone at least 25 of age has to sign for the rental cars. Her father, John Gulbis, a 54-year-old retired probation officer, will accompany her and caddie at some stops.
“We’ll see what we can do, see if we can put a team together,” he said.
Of the 18 competitors who won exempt status, 10 are international players, and there are six rookies in the Class of 2002.
The Q-School victory, which was worth $6,000, gave Strudwick a shot of optimism as she enters her 10th year on tour.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” she said. “This year I had a few mental lapses and lapses with my swing. Next year I’ll be looking to start with confidence.”
Someone who may want to put Q-School behind her is Candie Kung, the former USC standout, 2001 U.S. Public Links champion, and, most recently, winner of the Futures Tour Championship and its $10,500 first-place check.
On the final day, Kung was heading into the last two holes in solid position to get her card , but a bogey on No. 17 and a double on 18 dropped her into a tie with five others at 3-over 291.
The six players returned to the 16th tee and began a three-hole, cumulative score playoff for the four remaining exempt cards. Kung missed an 18-inch bogey putt on the opening hole and finished in fifth place to fall into the group with nonexempt status.
Sun Hee Lee, 27, of Seoul, South Korea, emerged from the playoff in disbelief.
“I thought I would lose,” she said. “I thought I didn’t have a chance.”
As she walked away, John Gulbis congratulated Lee, who now will join his daughter in the season-opener in Hawaii. “Aloha!” he yelled.