Editor's note: Playbook's "Fan Experience" series taps athletes to discuss their experiences with fans and their own memories of growing up as fans.
Natalie Gulbis looks as if she’d be more comfortable on a runway than she would on the fairway. But the 5-foot-9 blonde is not only one of the most popular female golfers on the planet, she’s also one of the best.
Gulbis played in her first LPGA event at the age of 14, graduated from Granite Bay High School near Sacramento at 16 (after playing on the boys' golf team) and turned pro at 18. Since then, she’s starred in her own reality show on the Golf Channel, competed on “Celebrity Apprentice” and even made an appearance in Tiger Woods' video game.
Gulbis recently sat down with us to chat about body paint, golf’s civilized fan base and the rise of the LPGA’s popularity.
ESPN Playbook: What’s the craziest thing one of your fans has ever done?
Natalie Gulbis: There’s this fan that we’ve gotten to know. When he turned 18, he got my logo tattooed on his arm. We have a picture of it. It’s pretty great, but I wonder what his first girlfriend is gonna say. (Laughs.) He was so excited though. This was a couple years ago. He came up to my dad and I when we were in Rochester, N.Y., and he’s like, “Look what I got! I’m now the biggest fan ever!” My dad was just like, “Yeah, you are.” You can’t really top that.
Was that more exciting for you or more creepy?
I think it’s cool that they’re that big of a fan, but I worry about that poor kid. If it was a henna tattoo or a sticker or they just Sharpied it on, that’s one thing. But this is permanent. I just hope it means something to him for a long time.
It’s the new trend. Every fan seems to be getting tattooed.
Yeah, I think it’s cool to get team tattoos. If you’re a 49ers fan or a Sacramento Kings fan, you get the logo tattooed on you. But I’d never seen anything like my personal logo tattooed on someone before.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done as a fan?
Stand in line with my grandma to get Joe Montana’s autograph when he came to Sacramento. We were in line for about four or five hours. It’s not even that crazy. It just seems like an extended amount of time to spend two seconds with him, but I think about it now when I do autograph signings and people wait in line for an hour. I mean, I remember all of the two or three seconds that Joe Montana spent with me. So to know that you have that short amount of time to spend with some of your fans that have been waiting a long time, and have probably been planning it the way that I did, I’m glad I got to do that. I know how it feels. It helps me to make the best of that short amount of time you get to spend with someone.
Is there someone that you’re such a fan of now that you’d be starstruck if you met them?
It would be any of those Olympic athletes. I’m a fan of all of them, so I’d definitely get starstruck if I get to meet any of them. Even the athletes I know, I get starstruck because I know what it’s like to be an athlete and I really just admire and respect what athletes go through and the dedication they have. Even more so, the Olympians because they get one chance every four years. I’m thankful that, in the game of golf, if I have a bad hole or a bad tournament, I get to play again soon. I couldn’t imagine training for four years to only essentially get one shot or to have one moment like these Olympians do. The pressure must be enormous. Like Lolo Jones, for instance. I was reading an article about how she stumbled on the ninth hurdle in Beijing and ... [waited] for four years for another moment. I can’t imagine waiting four years to hit a golf shot.
I’m so excited that golf is going to be in the next Olympics, which makes it even more special. That golf is going to be recognized as an Olympic sport is great.
You’ve been dealing with some of these pressures for a long time. You played on your first LPGA tour event at 14 years old. What did it feel like to have so many fans at such a young age?
Exciting. When you’re that young, you don’t feel like you have any pressure. You’re just taking it all in and everything is just wonderful. You play great, it’s wonderful. If not, you’re still there and it’s still wonderful. There’s a lot more pressure now, as a professional, that I put on myself to play well.
Back then you were playing on the boys' high school golf team. Do you think you had more fans because you were breaking new ground or did you have to deal with a lot of hecklers?
More fans, and the guys were wonderful to me. I had already played in a professional event, so it helped that I had the respect of my peers even though I played on the boys' team. I think they were more bothered if I ever outdrove them than if I outscored them. That would tap into their ego more. But it was great. I basically had four or five brothers that were protective of me and I knew, in a second, they would step up to defend me.
How do you deal with the hecklers or haters now? What do you do when someone says, 'Oh, she’s just another pretty face?'
We don’t have that in golf. I look at other sports, and I go to a lot of professional sporting events, and you have so much negative press against athletes or teams when they don’t do well. We don’t have that in golf the way I think other sports do. At least, I haven’t seen it in the LPGA in my 10 years. We’re pretty lucky to not have to deal with hecklers.
You’ve played in so many places all over the world. Where are the best fans?
United States. The game is so popular here still, and I love when I get to play in the states. There has been a big response in Asia as well, but I love to play in the states.
The popularity of the LPGA has skyrocketed over the past couple of years. Have you seen that yourself? Do you see more fans at events now than when you first started?
Yeah, definitely. Significantly more fans every single week. And it’s a different type of fan. You see more families and more young girls. Every week it seems like I see more junior players and more young players. Dads bringing their daughters or moms bringing their sons out than I used to see.
Do you think there’s anything else the LPGA could do to increase that fan base even more?
I think naturally, as the sport continues to grow in popularity, we’ll have more events and that will lead to even more fans. When we have an event in New Jersey, people there are talking about us. When we don’t have an event, people are talking about another sport. So I think as we get more events, that will just naturally help our popularity grow as well. I definitely think being in the Olympics will help.
You’re one of the most popular female golfers in the world. You’ve written a column for FHM. You’ve had a reality show. You were on “Celebrity Apprentice.” You’ve obviously embraced this stardom. How did the golf community react to all of the things you’ve done?
All those things definitely helped me reach new audiences and increase my fan base. When I did the “Celebrity Apprentice,” that was on network television and I was shown along with other athletes and celebrities that were playing for their charities. So I was in a different audience than just being on the Golf Channel or just being on ESPN playing golf. But I wouldn’t have had those opportunities if it wasn’t for the LPGA.
As far as the reception from golf fans and other golfers, it’s been great. I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback. That show only took me a couple weeks to shoot and it ran for around 12 weeks, so by the time it was running I was already playing in the regular season and it gave them something else to talk about. People got to see me doing something different than just playing golf or they got to learn something different about me. It kind of humanizes the athlete when they get to do things outside of their sport. It’s been really cool to hear the response.
How about the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue that recently came out with you posing in a body paint bikini? Has that brought out a lot of those “creepy” fans? Do you just sign those pictures all day long now?
Not yet. Not creepy fans, but I definitely have signed more of those. I feel really lucky and fortunate that the response has been positive. I was nervous about how it was going to be received. I know a couple girls that have done ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue and they were also featuring some Olympians, so you know it’s going to be well-received, but it’s still really nice when a fan says something nice about it.
I was just excited that they wanted to feature a golfer. When ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue featured Suzann Pettersen this year, it was so cool that they wanted to have a female golfer. It’s awesome to see kind of one of our own in there.
Did you get any playful ribbing from some of your fellow golfers?
Yeah, a couple of them. (Laughs.) Phil Mickelson asked me if I was planning to wear a body paint adidas golf outfit in the first major of the year. Just fun stuff like that. I learned how to paddleboard from Davis Love III and when the issue came out he sent me a text message asking me if I was going to start paddle boarding in painted bathing suits now. (Laughs.) Lots of tongue-in-cheek things, but nothing negative. All just fun. I think a lot of the players on tour were surprised in how long the process [of body painting] took and that it was actually body paint because Sports Illustrated made it look so real.
You’re very active on Twitter. Do you find that’s an easy, fun way for you to interact with your fans?
I find it’s a great way to connect with fans and I also find it’s a great way to get information out about what’s going on with the tour. I just think it’s a great way to get current information out to fans that otherwise might not know exactly what’s going on all the time.
You’ve been romantically linked in the past with Ben Roethlisberger. Did he start out as just another fan? Are there any other celebrity or athlete fans who stand out to you?
Oh, yeah. I’ve definitely met a lot of athletes and celebrities because they all play golf. When there’s a celebrity golf tournament and all the athletes play, you see so many different athletes. A lot of NFL players are great golfers. Tony Romo tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. During the AT&T event, you always see athletes in that.
And what’s cool about golf is that you can go and play together. I might not necessarily be able to go catch a pass from an NFL player, but we can go play golf. Then we can go play with an amateur, with a sponsor, or a kid. Golf is a cool game. It allows you to do that and you can basically play it forever.
Is that how you originally had met Ben?
No, no. We were set up through someone many, many years ago.
What do you think it is that makes your fans so amazing and dedicated?
Even when I don’t play well, they still like me. (Laughs.) Unconditional support. They’re just great and I love it.