Natalie Gulbis finally won a major this year. It will not count on the official statistics, but trust us, it was a major victory for her. She beat malaria.
"I feel good actually," she said yesterday with a smile that resulted from more than having shot 2 under par at the U.S. Women's Open -- among the best scores by Americans yesterday at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton and her best round in her favorite tournament since 2005.
On this day, Gulbis was happy that the number that counted was her score, not her temperature.
"I started feeling better in Rochester, which was three weeks ago," she said. "It was exciting to get some of my energy back."
As far as many people are concerned, Gulbis is the face of American women's golf. She is arguably the most famous and popular U.S. player on the LPGA Tour, what with viewers and advertisers having always found her appealing for her appearance. That is a really tricky subject for the LPGA, deciding how much to promote glamour as opposed to sheer golf skill and triumphs.
Gulbis does have one career victory, the 2007 Evian Ladies Masters, but there always was a hope from American fans that she could be more of a force. For her part, it has been hard to both promote the sport and play it. After her solid round Thursday, she had to do an appearance for Lexus and another for adidas. And she was happy to do them.
"I mean, it's an honor not only to be here at the Open but to have great partners," she said. "They want me to do signings and do more to grow the game and to give back to the fans, and the people who are so excited about these companies. All positive things."
But there was nothing positive about the way she was feeling in March, when she came down with flu-like symptoms during a tournament in Asia. The symptoms didn't go away and she was diagnosed with malaria, which just sounds horrible.
"I think it was better that they knew how to treat it and knew what to do," she said. "That always helps, when they have a clear understanding. They told me it was going to be six weeks."
A determined type who has been whacking golf balls since she was 4, Gulbis figured she would show them. She would start working out ahead of time and accelerate her recovery. "Isn't that what athletes do? They always come back before doctors say they can," she said. "I would just practice a little more. That would just keep setting me back. Then I would have to start again."
There are lessons in that. In golf, if you're behind a tree and don't really have a shot, don't try. In health, if they tell you to rest, just rest.
Gulbis allowed herself to get better. She came to Southampton earlier this week with a positive outlook, and enough humility to ask Mike Finney, who has been Sebonack's golf host since the course opened, for help on how to play every hole. It helped. Finney was there, applauding, when she finished with a birdie on 18 Thursday.
She had put herself in a good frame of mind before she got here.
"I have been to the Hamptons quite a few times. I played Shinnecock and I didn't even know Sebonack was here," she said. "It's spectacular. It's in great shape and it's the U.S. Open. What could be better than this?"
Only one thing would be better: winning it. She was reminded that Raymond Floyd won the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills (where her best score is 77) and was so overjoyed that he bought a home in Southampton. She wouldn't go that far.
"I like where I'm at," Gulbis said. "I like Nevada and I like California. I would enjoy visiting here."
Considering what she has been through this year, right now, she is happy to be anywhere.