She is a bright stroke of pink against a gray sky, smiling through small talk and delivering scripted lines with a laugh in her voice and her hands on her hips.
Natalie Gulbis is the color-coordinated, beribboned embodiment of the LPGA Tour's efforts to use emerging technology to reach current fans and make new ones. Gulbis is as likely to be found on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice as at a meet and greet with Special Olympics athletes in Williamsburg two days before the start of the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill. And she'll be tweeting all the while to fans following her on Twitter.
"We have such a great product," Gulbis said. "We've done so many polls on people that come out to LPGA tournament or play in a pro-am. They love us, and they become fans forever, but we have to continue to grow the sport and bring new audiences and people to the sport."
Gulbis is one of the new faces of that effort, but it's a time-tested concept. Three decades ago, golf It Girl Judy Rankin was chasing her young son Tuey in a commercial for Fab laundry detergent, mugging for the camera and trying to draw attention to her sport with her blond hair and approachable personality.
Both Gulbis and Rankin were on hand as tournament week at Kingsmill opened with a weekend summit focused on using all available means to help golf grow, even in a troubled economic climate that has seen the Tour lose two tournaments and thrown the future of others into doubt.
"I think everybody in the world, regardless of their situation or what they're facing, is having to do more, try harder, figure out new ways, and that's what the LPGA is doing," Rankin said. "They're doing it because of the economic times, but I think they would have done it regardless. Just because it's good for the business, it's good for promotion, to make public what these people do so well."
That goes above and beyond golf, and is why Gulbis, accessorized from her pink cap to her pink-striped sneakers, is standing in a chilly drizzle on a Tuesday afternoon at Two Rivers Country Club. Her megawatt smile doesn't dim even when a renegade golf cart scraps the first take of a promotional spot she's asked to read for a local TV station, and as soon as she's done, she heads straight for the Special Olympians waiting to learn a few quick putting tips.
"Hi. I'm Natalie," she says, shaking hands with Bobby Bolt, 23, and his father Robert and Sean Neville, 22, and father Mark.
It's all in a day's work for Gulbis, who earlier had a reporter take a picture of her on her BlackBerry for future Facebook posting.
"One of our breakout sessions (at Sunday's summit) was on social networking, getting into Facebook and blogging and being able to connect with fans and getting fans to be able to get to know us off the golf course," Gulbis said. "I think this was a great learning experience for a lot of players."
Even though a concept such as Twitter may be foreign to Rankin, she sees its value.
"I don't understand where people get the time to always be on a keyboard of some sort somewhere doing something," she said. "But I can see where if that's what you grew up with, it's a totally different world. I understand that and I think the LPGA is absolutely right in embracing all those avenues."
LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez was paying close attention to technology topics on Sunday.
"I'm still trying to get on Facebook," Lopez said. "My daughter's like, 'No, you're not gonna get on Facebook, Mom.' I'm like 'Why not? I'm not gonna ask to be your friend if you don't want me to.' ... I still get a lot of fan mail. It would be fun to answer them that way, with the tweets and stuff like that. I think it's a great way to reach out, because everybody's on the computer now, or texting."
Michelle Wie, still a near-constant focus of copious media attention, also wants to be more plugged in to the multimedia buzz.
"I just woke up one day and everybody's on Twitter," Wie said. "Why am I not on Twitter? So expect something very soon. … I'm 19. I should be on that stuff."
Cristie Kerr also is also planning Facebook and Twitter links on her Web site.
"We're going to be having a social community, because that's a necessary part of reaching your fans," Kerr said.
Just like Rankin tried to do all those years ago, in an ad for a detergent.
"Much as some of us might want to say no to new technology, it's here," Rankin said. "If you're not with it, you're going to lose."
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