Gulbis's complicated feelings toward the fame game are best illustrated through her calendar. In the coming weeks she will do the photo shoot for the 2006 edition. The plan is to use only swimsuit pictures. "If she's holding a golf club, she's just Natalie Gulbis of the LPGA," says John F. Turner, whose eponymous company produces calendars for 70 athletes, including Jeter, Brett Favre and Andy Roddick. "If you put her in a completely different setting she takes on a different persona, and that is important for extending her brand."
Gulbis will dutifully don the teeny-weeny bikinis but says, "I'd rather be in my golf shirt and skirt. I liked the 2005 calendar because there were pictures of me on the course, working out and in casual clothes. That captures my personality a little better."
She understands that it is the racier material that moves the needle. Her first calendar, for 2004, debuted to little fanfare. The '05 edition was released during last year's U.S. Women's Open, in July, and received a priceless publicity boost when the USGA put the kibosh on a signing, deeming four bikini shots "inappropriate." Since then John F. Turner and Company has gone back to print four times, selling about 40,000 copies at $12.99 apiece. (Gulbis gets a percentage of each calendar sold.)
While most players are forced to autograph sweaty hats or crumpled programs, Gulbis's calendar has become her calling card. The week after L.A. she traveled to the PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando for appearances and meetings. (Murray says he is in discussions with "a camera company and a well-known candy company.") At the LPGA booth at the show she signed calendars for the allotted two hours, and there were still 100 people waiting in line. "We have exceptionally high hopes for Natalie," Turner says. "She's going to be our next Kournikova, but she has the chance to be even bigger because of the longevity of her career and because she has a warm personality that endears her to the public." Turner says he is hoping for sales of 100,000 or more for the '06 calendar.
But as Gulbis's image gets ever bigger and more provocative, she runs the risk of alienating her core constituency in the conservative golf world. "Some kinds of celebrity can be destructive," says Adidas's Kawaja. "It might be counterintuitive, but we're not hoping she'll become the next Paris Hilton. Her value for us is performance on the course and representing the brand. We want the next generation of young girls to dream about being golfers, not TV stars."
Kawaja would have been cheered to see Gulbis at the photo shoot for this article. Dolled up and perfectly at ease as the center of attention, she certainly looked ready for her close-up. Yet the moment the shoot was over Gulbis exchanged her stilettos for golf spikes. "I'm going to go tee it up," she said before hopping into her truck and roaring into the future.