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Published: Monday, 7/17/2006

Gulbis had victory within her grasp

Yesterday's final round of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic presented by Kroger was a fat, juicy gopher ball served up on a silver platter right down the middle of the plate for tough-luck Natalie Gulbis.

Room-service style.

With sugar on top.

Gulbis' first LGPA tournament victory was well within her grasp. She led by four strokes after ramming home five straight birdies on the front nine.

Victory No. 1 was close enough for Gulbis to smell, taste and feel.

"I thought for sure that 5 or 6-under would do it," said Gulbis, who shot 6-under 65 yesterday.

It was because of her latest flirtation with excellence, the grandmother of all near-misses, that Gulbis was smiling on the outside but hurting on the inside after losing to Mi Hyun Kim on the third sudden-death hole at Highland Meadows Golf Club.

"It's not good. It's very difficult," said Gulbis, revealing a brave smile that disguised her true feelings.

"I'm always smiling, but it's very upsetting."

Gulbis, 23, will have plenty of time to relive the 12-foot birdie putt she missed on the second playoff hole, the nine-foot birdie putt she missed on the third playoff hole, and the clutch 18-footer Kim sank to wrap up her second win in 2006.

Gulbis, despite her best-laid plans, despite holding a lead entering the final day for the first time ever, despite stringing together four dynamic rounds (67-66-68-65 for a show-stopping 18-under par), managed to lose by the slimmest of margins.

"I knew she was beginning to make birdies, so I was trying to get to 20 [under]," she said. "I thought 20 would do it."

When it counted most, the shots - or breaks, take your pick - didn't fall Gulbis' way.

Kim made the money shot. Gulbis didn't.

To show there were no hard feelings, Gulbis - a real class act who hugged Kim following her victory - accepted full responsibility for not finishing the day the way she started it - on top and in control.

"All you can do is keep giving yourself chances," Gulbis said. "It's not like I didn't have any chances. You want to have a chance. You want to have that putt for 10 or 12 feet to make it."

So much for chances.

"I always thought I could win on tour," said Gulbis, who added the $106,155 second-place check to her more than $2 million in career earnings. "It's not like I finished last. I had a pretty positive week."

True. Gulbis bagged six birdies with no bogeys yesterday. She had a total of only four bogeys the entire tournament.

Gulbis played some incredible golf at Highland Meadows. Already one of the top all-around talents with loads of upside, she played good enough to win, but somehow didn't.

Yesterday's leaderboard was crammed with talent.

Gulbis lost in a sudden-death playoff to Kim, who's now fourth on the money list in 2006. Gulbis finished one stroke ahead of Paula Creamer, the 2005 rookie of the year. Gulbis finished nine strokes ahead of Annika Sorenstam, who's second on this year's money list.

The depth in women's golf is deeper than the water level at Ten Mile Creek.

Gulbis doesn't need a tour victory to validate her game, but a little luck wouldn't hurt.

What other golfer could shoot 18-under at the Farr Classic and finish second?



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