Jeff Hopper with Natalie Gulbis

California native Natalie Gulbis has been a fan favorite since she began her LPGA Tour career in 2002, when she was still a teenager. Now 27, Gulbis places the camaraderie gained through her experiences as a three-time Solheim Cup team member, as well as the deepening of friendships through the Women’s Professional Golf Fellowship on the Tour, as significant priorities in her life. Still soft-spoken about the topic, Gulbis opens up here for the first time about the role of Christian faith and fellowship for her as she matures in her connection with God.

Let’s talk first about how you got started playing golf. You were a good player at a very young age.
My father got me involved in the sport when I was five. I used to love to spend time with my dad, so that’s how I got involved with golf. It continued on and I played in more tournaments. I went through the process and played in college, then headed to LPGA qualifying school at age 19.

At what point did it click for you?
When I first started playing, I was winning junior tournaments. I thought it was fun to play in tournaments. I qualified for my first professional tournament when I was 14, and when I got a taste of what it was like to play in a professional event, I knew that I wanted to do that for a living. Up until that point, I loved to play and I loved to compete. I was a very active kid, and golf was one of the many things that I liked to do along with other sports. It wasn’t that I was specifically bred to be a golfer, or that there was any sort of predetermined plan for what I was going to do.

So when I was 14 and I played in that event, I remember coming back to my parents and saying, “I really like this. I want to make this a career.” After that, we changed my weekly schedule. I went to my school and asked them if I could get out early, so I could change my practices. And I started traveling more to play in tournaments.

Would you say that your dad was the most influential person on your game in those years?

Is your dad a good player, or is he more of a recreational player?
He was a recreational player.

What would you say is the strength of your game now?
My iron play.

And when you work on your game, do you work more on your strengths or your weaknesses?
I work on my weaknesses more than my strengths. And I work on my short game the most, because that’s where you can never spend enough time, saving shots around the green.

How do you stay mentally sharp week in and week out?
It runs on autopilot now. The season runs from February to October. I usually take Mondays off. Monday is a travel day. Tuesday starts practice, the pro-am is on Wednesday, and the tournament goes Thursday through Sunday. I’ve been traveling and competing like this since I was probably 16, so now it’s second nature. I enjoy both the time when I am on the golf course and when I’m off, so I think that helps me to enjoy both of them. When I’m away from golf, I don’t think about golf, and when I’m on the golf course, I’m focused on what I’m doing.

What are some of the things you like to do off the course?
Everything. I’ve been fortunate to travel to so many different places that I’ve seen and competed all over the world—traveled to Dubai, Singapore, France. It’s been fun to see different cultures and see the world.

I love to go to entertainment-based events, whether it’s a sporting event or a concert. I’ve gone to a lot of different events over the years in different cities.

How do you keep the balance between being favorably interactive with the fans, and yet remaining focused and competitive on the course at the same time?
I love my fans. The more, the better. You get even more adrenaline when you’re out there and you have a hundred thousand people up there cheering for you. That’s one of the best, best parts of competing—when you’re doing something that you love and you’re doing it in front of golfers or individuals who are out there that are excited to see you be successful.

What would you consider highlights in your career to this point?
Playing on the Solheim Cup team and winning three Cups. Playing on a team in an individual sport and playing alongside the best American players has been really, really good. Winning individual titles. The people that I’ve gotten to meet throughout the process. I’m in a different city almost every single week, and through golf I’ve been able to build great relationships.

Are there any episodes from your travels that you know will really last for you?
All of them. I love to see different cultures and learn how people practice their faith. It’s a learning experience. It’s a big world out there!

Japan is one of my favorite places to visit and see—so very different from the USA.

Talk about the camaraderie of events like the Solheim Cup and how valuable that is on a tour like the LPGA, which has had a tough year or two.

The Solheim Cup definitely brings players together in a very individual sport. It brings the American players together for the year, and that’s really fun to be part of.

Another thing that players step up and do a lot of is work to help charities that are having an impact in local communities. What are some charities that mean a lot to you?
I was on a TV show last year called Celebrity Apprentice. When I was on the show, I got to play for the Boys and Girls Club. That’s my charity that I support. I don’t think it’s written about enough how much charity work that the girls do, either by having their own foundation or their own charity, or by getting out into the community during the week.

You are involved in the Fellowship on Tour. How does this contribute to the development of friendships and camaraderie for you?
Three or four years ago, Wendy Ward invited me to be part of a small group. We were playing during one of the tournament rounds and she was telling me about girls being in a small group, and that they have a book and a Bible study that they do together, and they usually meet once a week and go to dinner.

She invited me to be part of it and I went for the first time in Tennessee. I remember how nervous I was to go and share my faith with others.

But what’s neat about the Fellowship is that it’s not about one particular denomination. It’s open to everybody in the LPGA and your friends and family when you come out on Tour. It’s very special because we’re an international-based tour that has players from all over the world, so we have players in the Fellowship who are from Korea and come from a different background or denomination, and we have players who come from Mexico who are of a different denomination, and we’re able to interact with one another in a common theme. I’ve really enjoyed the experience and getting to know the players.

How many players are involved in a small group?
It usually starts off with four or five, and sometimes it gets up to eight or ten, depending on who is playing that week, or if there is a particular book. There are five or six different books that you can go through. Sometimes we meet for coffee, sometimes we meet in the clubhouse for lunch. It’s about staying connected with each other.

Throughout my time with the small group I’ve been involved in, we’ve seen girls that have gotten pregnant and girls that have gone through divorce, girls that have gone through tough times and great times. We’ve become like a small family on Tour. It’s great because it’s hard to stay connected. I’m fortunate with my church here in Las Vegas that they have podcasts, so I can watch the podcasts online when I’m out on the road. But for a lot of players on Tour, the Fellowship is really their church out there.

When you first started going to the small group meetings, was that the first real outworking of your faith, or had you had some experience before this?
I was very private with my faith. I traveled with my Bible, and I read my Bible everyday by myself and learned. I’m still very private about my faith. I watch the podcasts from my church online.

What church is that in Las Vegas?
It’s called Central Christian. It’s a non-denominational church. When I first went to this church—you never know what to expect when you go to a church for the first time—we were walking in, and there was a coffee shop on the left and people were going to church in jeans. It was very casual and it had great music and a pastor that was the right fit for me. I’d been to church with friends and family in different churches and denominations all over the world, so it’s fun to have one that I can go to in Las Vegas and feel comfortable at.

How much of the year are you in Las Vegas?
Not enough! Let’s just say I spend more time on the road than I do at home.

Are there any particular passages of the Bible that strengthen you?
Yes, there are. But this year I had a fan who had seen me at church and who came up and asked me to write my favorite verse beneath my signature. I didn’t have one. So that’s my resolution for 2010 is to find one that I would be able to share with my fans.

Is there anything that you find in the discipline and practice of your faith that is similar to the discipline that is required of you athletically?
Yes. What is important to me both as an athlete and in my faith is consistency and learning. Consistency in creating some really positive habits in your life, whether it’s in your faith or in your sport. And learning—I love to learn about different perspectives on people’s faiths. I’ve seen different religions all over the world, and it’s fun to see how different people practice their faith, and it helps me to grow spiritually as well. I think there are parallels.

Do you find that there is conflict between setting goals for your career and letting God do His work in your life?
Well, setting goals for my career, I set with my team—with my coaches and with my trainers. But my personal goals, I set in my quiet time. I find that if I’m struggling to make a decision, usually quiet time helps me to get through that.

If you were advising a young person going into golf as a career today, what might you say to that young player?
It will exceed any expectation you have about how wonderful it is. Being able to compete against the best in the world in any particular field, whether it’s in golf or a non-sports activity, is really, really spectacular. Getting to travel has been an eye-opening experience, getting to see different cultures in different countries, and to compete against international players. So it’s been very rewarding, and I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to be able to do it. I wish I had known how great it would be when I was growing up. It would have been even more clear at an early age that this is what I wanted to do.


  • Natalie Gulbis

    1 LPGA Tour win: 2007 Evian Masters