Natalie Gulbis exited the 18th green toward an outsized tunnel of fans Thursday at Highland Meadows.
Dozens of pen-wielding supporters whose demographics ranged from preteen girl to middle-aged male eagerly lined both sides of a roped-off path, and Gulbis politely accommodated them all.
It is a scene that plays out every day of every event. Gulbis is arguably the tour’s most popular player, with mounds of sponsors, an unsurpassed Twitter following (157,126 at last count), and a brand that transcends golf. She has posed in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue and starred in her own reality show.
Yet even for a player defined by her off-the-course celebrity, her fame to production ratio has been particularly skewed this year.
Gulbis came to the Marathon Classic to reroute a star-crossed season. Her goal, she said, is “just getting back in to contention and having a chance to win tournaments.”
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She did just that Thursday, turning in a 3-under 68 to finish the opening round in 10th place — three strokes behind leader Alison Walshe.
Gulbis birdied four of the first five holes and remained steady the rest of the day. Although the 30-year-old California native missed a par putt to bogey the par-5 18th hole, she left the course in good spirits.
“There was some good and some bad,” she said. “I got off to a good start and didn’t really do much after that. But overall, it was good.”
The day offered a welcome lift. Gulbis has finished higher than 46th only twice in 12 events this season, and has endured hardship that rendered her golf struggles trivial.
In March, she pulled out of the HSBC Women’s Champions event in Signapore with flu-like symptoms. But her illness lingered, and doctors back in the U.S. diagnosed her with malaria — a mosquito-borne disease that kills more than 650,000 people per year, mostly young children in Africa, but is treatable.
Battling off-and-on fevers, she lost 15 pounds and often felt sluggish even as she returned to competition a month later.
These days, she is feeling better.
Gulbis announced earlier this month her engagement to former Yale quarterback Josh Rodarmel.
On the course, her strength has returned.
“I’ve felt good for the last six weeks,” she said Thursday.
Gulbis is especially comfortable in Toledo. Beyond the blistering heat, which she said felt “great,” she is back on a familiar course with familiar surroundings. Gulbis has stayed with the same local tournament host family for years.
“They spoil me for the week,” she said. “It’s like staying back at home with Mom and Dad. They treat me like a daughter. They said when I was coming in that my five-star accommodations are ready. I’ve got this great little princess room that was their daughter’s.”
Gulbis, who has $4.7 million in career earnings but only one LPGA win in 13 pro seasons, sees the Marathon Classic as the ideal place to jump-start her year.
“I love this golf course, and I love coming back here,” she said.
Contact David Briggs at: email@example.com, 419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.