For a while at the Evian Masters on Sunday, it appeared that Natalie Gulbis just might nab her second career LPGA Tour win. Following three straight birdies on the back nine, the 2007 Evian Masters winner made a strong run at leaders Karrie Webb and eventual victor Inbee Park.
Alas, it was not to be for the popular 29-year-old American, who has made a name for herself more for her striking appearance than her ball-striking. Despite two birdies to finish up a 4-under 68 finale, a bogey on the par-4 16th -- as well as Park’s amazing putting demonstration -- left her in a tie for fourth, just four shots off the pace.
Gulbis, whose only other tour win came on the Evian Masters Golf Club, began the day one shot behind leaders Stacy Lewis and Park but got off to a tough start with bogeys on two of her first three holes. Five birdies in seven holes helped her bounce back and she had a chance to tie for the lead, but her birdie putt on 15 just lipped out.
A three-putt on 16 put her two strokes behind the front-runners, but Gulbis was satisfied with her birdie-birdie finish.
“At the top of the leaderboard there was a group of players that are not only playing well, but really good at making a ton of birdies,” Gulbis told reporters following her round. “So I just tried to make as many as I could and take my chances.There were a couple pins you had to stay away from. Then I actually bogeyed 16, so it was nice to birdie the last two.”
For sure, the Evian contest, which will become the LPGA Tour’s fifth major in 2013, is one of Gulbis’ favorites.
“I love everything about this event,” she said following her third-round 68 on Saturday. “This event is special for me because it is where I had my first individual win. It's just so beautiful. I think all the players would agree it's one of the best events all year.”
Even coming up short, Gulbis was pleased with her third top-10 finish of the season. It’s been a long haul for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who underwent career-saving back surgery two years ago and has played some of the best golf of her 11-year professional career in 2012.
"I feel as good as I did my rookie year because I don't have any pain," Gulbis told Fox5SanDiego prior to the Kia Classic in March. "I'm able to train the way I want to and the overall quality of life is better and able to do things I haven't been able to do in years, run and play tennis and lift things I haven't been able to lift and it's been great, I've been very lucky."
She reiterated on Sunday that all was well with her back.
“I have been healthy, which knock on wood has been great,” Gulbis told reporters. “I've made a couple caddie changes. I will be looking forward to the rest of the year.”
As for Park, the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open winner rode her left-hand-low putting stroke to eight birdies, including three in a row and a bomb from downtown on 18, to her sixth career worldwide triumph.
Webb, who has played solidly all season, had a Tiger Woods-”Oh my goodness” Masters 2005 moment on 18, when her 30-yard, left-to-right downhill pitch shot for eagle from the deep rough just slipped past the hole.
Lewis, who was hoping for her third LPGA win of the season, labored under something of a disadvantage down the stretch. She realized, on about the 12th hole, that her driver was cracked. Assuming it had fractured during normal play and not because she smacked it in anger, Rule 4-3 would have let Lewis switch out the faulty club for a substitute.
She chose not to chance it with an unfamiliar stick, instead going with 3-wood and utility clubs off the tee. The situation did not seem to hinder her much as Lewis ended her week with birdies on Nos. 15 and 16 and an eagle-3 on the 18th.
Lewis and Webb finished two shots behind Park, who needed just 22 putts in her final round and will cash the $487,500 winner’s check. In five years on the LPGA Tour, Park has earned 29 top-10s, including five in a row in 2012.