Colorado Springs, Colo. – Enjoying a solitary moment inside the locker room at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, where she had just claimed the biggest championship in women’s professional golf, Paula Creamer suddenly couldn’t stop her hands from shaking.
The realization of her accomplishment had finally overcome the then-23-year-old Californian.
A lifelong dream finally had come to fruition, erasing the heavy expectations placed on her since turning pro six years earlier. The heartaches from near-misses in 2008 and 2009, the thumb surgery that had sidelined her for much of the spring and the painful rehabilitation had all bubbled to the surface.
Paula Creamer now could call herself a U.S. Women’s Open champion and it felt awfully good.
Minutes earlier, Creamer had tapped in for a final-round 69 – her 3-under total of 281 four shots clear of Na Yeon Choi and Suzann Pettersen. When the final putt dropped, she incredulously covered her face as the wave of emotion washed over her.
Throughout that championship Sunday, Creamer heard patriotic shouts of “Go Paula, Go USA,” from a highly supportive western Pennsylvania gallery, something she had only heard when playing for her country in the biennial Solheim Cup.
“I remember making that [final] putt,” said Creamer, recalling the moment on May 24, at media day for the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open at The Broadmoor, where she’ll defend her title July 7-10. “I couldn’t believe it. You could tell [because] I was like, ‘Wow, this happened. And it happened here at Oakmont.’ My fourth tournament back [from thumb surgery].”
Ever since joining the pay-for-play ranks in 2004, Creamer had been hearing discussions about when she would win a major title. It’s something all great players hear. Some just take longer than others to fulfill those expectations.
Winning on the LPGA Tour certainly wasn’t an issue. She won twice in her rookie season – the Sybase Classic shortly before her high school graduation and the prestigious Evian Masters in France – but at the majors she had come up empty.
At the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open, Creamer held the 54-hole lead, only to shoot a final-round 78 at Interlachen Country Club outside of Minneapolis. A year later at Saucon Valley C.C. in Bethlehem, Pa., she got too aggressive on the short par-4 10th in the third round, making a disastrous triple-bogey 7, to fall out of contention. That moment was even revisited at media day when USGA Executive Director Mike Davis was introducing Creamer at the podium. “You have to still bring that up, don’t you?” Creamer playfully interjected.
And as the 2010 Open approached, there were plenty of doubts on the status of Creamer’s game. The thumb surgery had limited practice time and nobody knew how the tender digit would hold up on one of the game’s toughest championship layouts.
But during the layoff after the 3½-hour reconstructive surgery, Creamer began to reflect on her career and what she needed to do to reach the next level. She watched videotape, and with swing coach David Whelan, came up with an improved on-course game plan.
“We were not going to deviate from that plan,” she said. “And it didn’t matter where I stood or what I did.”
The injury and subsequent surgery also put life into perspective. Even the supremely talented Creamer clearly understood just how quickly something so enjoyable as playing professional golf can be instantly taken away. Hands are so critical to a golfer’s ability and the ligament damage was possibly career-threatening, despite the doctors’ assurance of a complete recovery.
“I remember waking up and I had a cast to my elbow,” she said. “I had this huge cheese sponge thing around my arm. I said, ‘Where’s my arm? Where did it go?’ I didn’t know to the extent how bad [the injury] was. It was scary.”
Fortunately for the golf world, the effervescent Creamer returned to the LPGA Tour in May, playing three events – the ShopRite Classic, Wegmans LPGA Championship and Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic – prior to the Women’s Open. Even so, the pain lingered. Her practice time limited, the ultra-competitive Creamer had to fight through the adversity to regain her strength.
“I didn’t know if I was going to come back and do the same things I had done before,” said Creamer. “Something I love so much was taken away from me for that amount of time. I told myself that I want to be this role model; I want to show the little girls how to overcome adversity and not fall into the trap of it.”
Coming to Oakmont at less than 100 percent perhaps placed fewer expectations on Creamer. She was not the heavy favorite. In fact, she wasn’t sure how the surgically repaired thumb would react. Turns out, it was just fine. Her play over the four days was spectacular. Following a 1-over-par 72 in round one, she answered with three consecutive sub-par scores of 70-70-69. There would be no weekend meltdown this time. Creamer had clearly learned from the mistakes of 2008 and 2009, and the disappointment of two semifinal showings at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2003 and 2004.
Finally, she had that elusive USGA title.
“I always knew I wanted to have my name on a USGA trophy,” she said. “I had come so close [in the past]. But to have my first major be the United States Women’s Open is very special.
“Every time I walk into my house, my trophy is on my kitchen table. It’s nice to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with the trophy. It’s very special to have my name inscribed with all those great players. It means a lot.”
To The Victor Go The Spoils
When Creamer returned to her Florida home from Pittsburgh with the trophy in tow, there were plenty of congratulatory voice mails and text messages, plus 30 flower bouquets. The gregarious Creamer knew her life was going to change and she reveled in everything that came her way.
There were magazine photo shoots, special appearances at the PGA Merchandise Show, an F-16 ride with the Thunderbirds, a cameo on “The Price is Right,” a trip to play Augusta National and even a scheduled skydive into The Broadmoor for Women’s Open media day.
Everything happened except the latter. Creamer was all prepared to drop 18,000 feet into the resort, including a training session at the Air Force Academy. Creamer said at the prize ceremony last year that if she won a major, she would parachute out of a plane.
But Mother Nature threw her a curve ball on the morning of the scheduled jump and the low ceiling and poor visibility forced the event to be postponed.
“I am very bummed,” she told reporters during the May 24 press conference. “I did my training yesterday. I put my toes over the edge [of the plane] and rolled over. Hopefully I will be able to do it over the next couple of months. What a perfect place to do it. But you can’t control Mother Nature.”
Creamer certainly can’t complain about the other endeavors she has experienced since last July. Pulling 9.1 Gs (gravitational force) in an F-16 definitely was the highlight. Air Force Captain Kristin “Mother” Hubbard provided the thrill in Pittsburgh, taking Creamer on a 650 mph ride over Oakmont C.C., where she saw the course upside down while the plane was flipped over.
Creamer’s flying interest had come at an early age. Her father, Paul, flew in the U.S. Navy and later commercially with American Airlines. But Paul had never been in an F-16 jet.
To prepare for the experience, Creamer was told to get a good night’s sleep, drink plenty of water and eat a light breakfast. Before the flight, she went through a three-hour prep course, including a medical check and procedural briefings on how to parachute out in case of an emergency.
Hubbard gave Creamer, sitting in the rear seat, the full treatment inside the $30 million jet. The plane flew on a straight line toward and through the clouds, upside down and through a series of inverted loops and barrel rolls. As the flight neared its completion, the plane made a pass over Oakmont upside down. Hubbard asked if she remembered the layout. “I could make out the course,” said Creamer. “That was really neat.”
More importantly, through the whole flight, Creamer “never got sick.”
Paula’s dad had a huge smile on his face when she returned to the base. “That was one of the most amazing things I have ever done in my life.”
That was only the beginning of Paula’s Amazing Adventure.
In the fall, she appeared on an episode of “The Price Is Right” with host Drew Carey. Creamer first came out to assist a contestant with the Hole-In-One game, where she was asked to demonstrate making a 12-foot putt.
Nervous given the fact that she had to accomplish the task in one take, Creamer stroked the ball into the hole. The contestant won the car from a shorter distance because he had successfully priced items in order of their cost.
Later in the show, Creamer took part in the Showcase Showdown.
This past spring, Creamer was contacted by Oakmont president Bill Griffin, who also is a member at Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters. Shortly after Charl Schwartzel won this year’s tournament, Creamer, along with Whelan and agent Jay Burton, spent two days on the grounds as Griffin’s guest. Not only did she get to play two rounds on the hallowed course, she also spent a night in Butler Cabin, the cottage where Masters champions receive their green jacket during the televised portion of the prize ceremony.
“I played the pink ball,” said Creamer, who always wears pink and plays a ball of that hue during every final round. “They all said it was the first time a pink ball had ever been played out there. So that was pretty cool.”
Creamer birdied the famous par-3 12th hole in her first round on the course, shooting a respectable 75. She later shot four under on the par-3 course and returned the next day to card an even-par 72, including a birdie at the par-4 finishing hole.
“A nice way to end my Augusta trip,” she said.
One might think all these extra-curricular activities would detract from her focus on the golf course. After all, she hasn’t won since the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open. Creamer resoundingly says no. While she loves being a 24-year-old pro, she also understands how to balance fun with focus.
She acknowledged that it’s been difficult to say no to media requests, whether it’s a magazine shoot, television interview or a promotional endeavor. It’s simply not in Creamer’s DNA to turn away people.
In fact, she relishes being a role model and showing people you can enjoy life while also being serious about your chosen vocation.
“I’ll never let the fun stuff get in the way of golf,” said Creamer of her off-the-course activities. “The day that happens is the day I’ll have to re-evaluate things. A lot of girls [on tour] don’t necessarily like doing that stuff. I like doing photo shoots. That’s my time away.
“Yes, I am a professional golfer and I have to play well. I want to play well. There’s so much I want to do in the game. But at the same time, you have to live your life too. You don’t want to get burned out. I think the biggest thing is learning a balance of what works best for you.”
David Shefter is the USGA’s senior staff writer. E-mail questions or comments to email@example.com.