LPGA's It Girls

Reader, “Not politically correct but respectful,” challenged me once again on my remarks about Natalie Gulbis and whether she wants to be respected for her looks or abilities (probably both, actually).

He said:

Lots of comments to your blog, By the way, I feel honoured to be the sole subject of an entire post!

As you say, I dont recall pushing her into swimsuit modelling, Dont you get it, the approach you (and many of your fellow golf reporters) take to reporting reinforces woman as objects. To illustrate, let me quote another portion of your original post Of course that wasnt what the largely male media showed up for. No. We appeared to see if Natalie Gulbis is as hot in person as she is on the bad reality program on the golf channel.

I must admit that my tongue was planted a bit firmly in cheek…anyway, continue:

The premise of the event in London was a golf tournament promotion but instead you attended to see how hot Natalie G. is in person. In other words, she is an object first, and golfer second. Yes, I know she has a calendar and she would appear to take advantage of her television friendly advantages. Nonetheless, I get the sense that you and your fellow golf writers are only interested in her looks and not the athlete, reinforcing the sterotype that middle age male men objectify good looking young athletes, I know it happens all the time, does not mean it should.

As to whether Natalie has defined herself by her looks, perhaps you should ask her yourself, would she rather be known as a hot pinup girl or a highly talented professional athlete? I would suggest the latter, but the middle aged male golfer may disagree.

I actually think Gulbis is AOK with her swimsuit status and must not mind the situation, or why would she put herself in it?

Anyway, thanks for the debate — that’s what this site is for. To add some context, and for those that missed it, here’s the Post story from earlier in the week:

Golf’s best face forward: Sure they can golf. But a player’s youth and good looks, not to mention swimsuit calendars and TV shows, are also an increasingly important part of making the LPGA attractive to new fans

LONDON – Natalie Gulbis is the It girl of the moment. She has her own swimsuit calendar, and her own reality show. She went to the Academy Awards and was seen at the best parties afterwards.“The Academy Awards were great fun,” says Gulbis. “It is great to be in an environment where you can dress up and be a girl. It was just a lot of fun.”

With all the exposure she has had in the past year, it is almost too easy to forget Gulbis is a gifted athlete and one of a group of bright young golf stars on the LPGA that merge glamour and talent.

Gulbis, 23, was at the Hunt Club in London, Ont., yesterday, with upstart teenager Morgan Pressel, as part of a charity event and media push for the Canadian Women’s Open that is being played in August. Sitting alongside the It girls of the LPGA were some of the sport’s most successful — and slightly older — golfers, including Canadian Lorie Kane, 41, legend Juli Inkster, 45, and defending Canadian Women’s Open champion Meg Mallon, 43.

While some have seen the LPGA’s renewed image push as downplaying the abilities of its key players, Pressel only sees it as positive.

Along with Gulbis, Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer and a handful of others, the 17-year-old is at the forefront of the explosion of interest in women’s golf, where attractive players blessed with remarkable talent fight it out weekly on television.

Within that context, Pressel has no problem with being part of the It girl phenomena.

“I think it is a great thing,” said Pressel. “But it is only one aspect of the tour. It is not just the It girls. It isn’t just Annika [Sorenstam] or the other international players who are playing so well on our tour. It is a way to market the tour and show off the younger generation and it has really drawn a lot of attention.”

The youth movement has drawn so much attention that some of the LPGA’s other young stars, like Se Ri Pak, who has 22 victories including four majors, have almost been lost in amidst the marketing push.

“I’m not very old, but I sometimes feel old,” said Pak, who was also in London for the media event. “When I joined the tour I was in my early-20s. I was pretty young. But now they are [joining the tour] at 17 and 18, and I feel pretty old.”

For the record, Pak is 28.

Not everyone thinks that younger is necessarily better, or even healthy for the teen players making the transition into the limelight. Mallon joined the LPGA when she was 23, and says every emerging teenage golfer should consider college before turning pro. After all, unlike a sport like football, where injuries can finish a player before they turn 30, golf provides a degree of longevity.

“College has never hurt someone in golf,” says Mallon.

“Juli Inkster is playing some of the best golf of her entire career and she is 45 years old. To me, the more a young player can learn what it is like to be out on their own [at college] the better it is for them when they come out on tour.”

But Pak says the reality of golf on the LPGA has changed. The players are now better athletes in better condition and are more willing to show themselves off in flashy, eye-catching clothing.

“Over the last couple of years, a lot of things have changed on the LPGA,” said Pak. “The marketing has changed and a lot of the youngest players play well. But even the way players dress has changed. It has made a huge difference.”

In order to help the players market their sport and themselves, the LPGA has image and fashion consultants on call, providing everything from assistance with hair and makeup, to help in improving their wardrobe.

The LPGA is on the right track in promoting its players, according to Toronto sports-marketing expert Brad Robins, who says the tour needs to “provide as many touch points as it can” in a market saturated by a wide variety of sports.

“It goes beyond the player’s abilities,” Robins says. “If that’s what you want to promote, you’re fishing where the fish are. But that’s easy. That’s the core fans.

“What you need to attract new fans is a hot golfer in her new calendar, or a player appearing on THe Young and the Restless. It is all about new and future consumers.”

All of this will be integral to the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s attempt to draw some attention to the tournament. But even after losing a sponsor (Bank of Montreal) and pulling a new one out at the eleventh hour (Canadian National Railway), the Canadian Women’s Open isn’t out of the woods. The tournament will go head-to-head again with an event in Sweden hosted by Sorenstam, arguably the best female golfer in history. Many of the world’s top female golfers will choose to skip the London event and stay in Europe following the Women’s British Open.

But all the players at yesterday’s media event insisted they would be at the Robert Trent Jones-designed Hunt Club for the Canadian Women’s Open, which runs from August 10 to 13. If they do show up, and some other key players also attend (like veteran Australian star Karrie Webb or teen-dream Wie), perhaps the Canadian Women’s Open can latch on to this explosion in interest in women’s golf.

Pressel says there’s nothing wrong with the hype — especially if the players live up to it and it brings new fans to the sport.

“I think the hype going into this season is bigger than it has been in a very, very long time. And that can’t be a bad thing.”


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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

3 CommentsLeave a comment

  • To our Morally Superior friend, Natalie poses in a swmisuit to bring attention to her game?
    She poses in a swimsuit to get male attention. Robert’s statements, although taken a little too seriously my some, means she has accomplished at least one of her goals. To get male attention for her looks.
    I would think Natalie, upon reading your comments, would get quite a chuckle and ask you to move on to issues that actually need your condescending concern.
    Moral E. Bankrupt

  • LPGA Tour in the last few years had officially endorsed the idea to market the image (i.e. attractiveness) of the players as a way to gain popularity and media attention. And for the most part, the players agreed with the strategy.

    Look around you, attractive people are simply better suited to be used as marketing vehicle.

  • Thanks Robert for the healthy debate.

    By the way, your original National Post article is balanced. Thanks for attaching. However, it is your blog post (style, approach, tone etc) that I was debating.

    By the way, you copied most of my post comments. However, one comment you missed referenced how male writers reacted to the (fake) announcement that Gulbis was to appear at a Taylormade golf ball launch. You said “the men jumped out of their seats so quickly that you’d thought a world-class stripper had just entered the room”. Hmmm, would Nancy Gulbis like that reference?

    As to Moral E Bankrupt’s reference to my supposedly morally superior attitude and condescending concern, I can understand this reference although I would disagree. If having a genuine concern that woman should be treated as people and not as objects and the hope that woman can garner the same media attention for their athletic capabilities rather than how hot they are, then I am guilty as charged.

    Interestingly, both you and Robert assumed how Natalie would react to this discussion and attention. However, I did not make such assumptions…my preference is to ask her and then go from there. If anything, I am expressing an opinion and seeking to gather information to confirm or deny. I think this hardly qualifies me as having a superior attitude. If I did have such an attitude, I would simply assume what Gulbis would think…wait a minute, isn’t that what you did?…

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