Natalie Gulbis isn’t playing in the 36th U.S. Senior Open, but it’s still a home game of sorts for the LPGA player.
Gulbis, 32, who was born and raised in California’s capital city, will be at Del Paso Country Club as a broadcaster for Fox Sports, for whom she is working this year when she isn’t competing on the LPGA Tour. It’s a happy return for Gulbis, who hasn’t been to her hometown in a year.
“I’m really excited to come back to Sacramento,” Gulbis said. “Being on tour, I travel quite a bit so I don’t get home enough.”
The one-time LPGA winner (2007 Evian Masters) is fresh off a week of announcing at Chambers Bay during the U.S. Open, where she got a fresh perspective on the men’s game in her multiple trips walking around the hilly design.
“My favorite part of last week was [getting] to walk 18 holes with Phil [Mickelson],” Gulbis said. “I know Phil well from working with Butch [Harmon]. But to get to watch him play in a major championship, to walk alongside him and see just how incredibly good the male players are … it’s just raised to another level.”
Gulbis was mostly a public-course golfer growing up but played occasionally at Del Paso. “This has always been one of the premier courses in Sacramento,” she said. “I never turn down an invitation to come and play here.”
She believes it will be a challenging week for the Senior Open field. “Staying out of the rough will be a key part to this week,” Gulbis said. “This is a little more of a traditional U.S. Open golf course with firm greens and lots of rough, and this rough is just going to be growing and growing. I’m sure it’s going to be very penalizing. This is a course where you can make some birdies early and then just hang on and try not to give back.”
Gulbis has played in the U.S. Women’s Open 13 times, so she knows what rigorous conditions are like. She will play in her 14th next month at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club after earning a berth in sectional qualifying.
“I just feel really fortunate to be on the U.S. Open train this year,” she said. “I love U.S. Opens. Everything about them, there's no greater test of a player's mental game and endurance, the quality of shots they hit and the perseverance. We saw that last week [at Chambers Bay], and every single U.S. Open is like that. It's our nation's championship. And being an American, they're the greatest event. So I'm thrilled to be at all of them.”
She won’t even be neglecting her own game this week, taking advantage of the practice facilities at a nearby public course.
“Thankfully, Haggin Oaks has a night range,” Gulbis said. “I’ll be spending time there to make sure I’m ready for our U.S. Open and the next stretch of golf.”
Bunker Soaking in First Senior Open Appearance
If the rest of the U.S. Senior Open is as enjoyable as Tuesday was for Canadian amateur Dave Bunker, it will be quite a week.
Bunker signed up for his 7:31 a.m. practice-round starting time two weeks ago, not knowing who he would be playing with. When he got on the first tee, 1995 U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin walked up. Scott Simpson, the 1987 U.S. Open winner, joined them on the inward nine.
“I just happened to end up with two major winners,” Bunker said. “You don’t really expect that. It was awesome. I had lots of fun.”
A physical education teacher at Lawrence Heights Middle School in Columbus, Ontario, for 25 years, Bunker turned 50 on May 18 and relishes the opportunity to play with several of the game’s all-time greats, knowing it’s a pastime and not a career.
“Both my parents were school teachers,” Bunker said. “That’s what I wanted to be ever since I was a kid, and I can see myself retiring as a teacher. It’s a really rewarding job. Two months off in the summer to play golf is an added bonus.”
He has a decorated amateur record in Canada, winning 16 tournaments and playing in two Canadian Opens. This is his second USGA championship, his other being the 2009 U.S. Mid-Amateur.
His last name can be a conversation starter, especially on a golf course.
“It took about three minutes before Corey said something and about a minute before Scott said something when he joined us on the back nine,” Bunker said. “It happens more often than you might think.”
Bunker, who shot a 69 to earn one of two qualifying spots at the sectional in Columbus, Ohio, is approaching the Senior Open without many expectations.
“I’m here to have fun and just try to play as well as I can and see what happens,” he said. “I go in for lunch and I couldn’t name all the players you watch on TV that I’ve seen over the years and they’re all here. This is something very special.”
Senior Open Hardware Has Long Lineage
The U.S. Senior Open, first contested in 1980, is a relatively new national championship when compared with others conducted by the USGA. Yet the U.S. Senior Open Trophy is actually the oldest among the USGA’s championship trophies.
On Sept. 24, 1894, the Tuxedo Club of Tuxedo Park, N.Y., invited three other clubs to compete in the first American interclub tournament. Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, Saint Andrew’s Golf Club, and The Country Club of Brookline, Mass., agreed to the challenge. While there is still some dispute as to which team won, The Country Club team, consisting of H.C. Leeds, Laurence Curtis, Robert Bacon and W.B. Thomas, returned home with the trophy. The sterling silver, hourglass-shaped cup remained in the club’s possession until the mid-1950s, when it was given to the USGA for exhibition.
In June 1980, with the USGA preparing for the first U.S. Senior Open, The Country Club suggested that the trophy be used as the formal award for the championship. The cup was presented “by the Country Club and Golfers of Massachusetts,” and formally dedicated as the Francis D. Ouimet Memorial Trophy. Roberto De Vicenzo received it at Winged Foot Golf Club as the inaugural champion.
A replica of the trophy, complete with engraving of the 1894 Brookline team, was produced by the USGA in 1997 and awarded to Graham Marsh at Olympia Fields Country Club in Illinois. The original was then given its second and final retirement, and is on display at the USGA Museum in Far Hills, N.J.
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.