The Long Road Back For Paula Creamer
IT HAS been a long road back for Paula Creamer. Once the darling of US women's golf, she has been through hell with injuries, but this week she tees it up in the US Women's Open.
This is the golfer Charley Hull sought out for an autograph when playing against her in the Solheim Cup.
By 2010, and aged just 23, she already had eight LPGA Tour victories to her name, three Solheim Cup appearances and had been second in the world rankings.
When the woman universally known as Pink Panther arrived at Oakmont Country Club for the US Women’s Open, she was serenaded by cries of “Paula” and chants of “USA.” But barely three months removed from thumb surgery, she had no idea what to expect.
But she won, playing the last six holes of one of the world’s most challenging golf courses in two under par for her first major victory. This year, she has no expectations at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Since that Oakmont victory, Creamer has had another operation on her left hand – this time on the wrist – and has won only once, falling outside the top 300 in the world rankings.
From October 2019 until the middle of May this year, she didn’t compete at all, using the time off to get fit and healthy. A special exemption from the USGA sees her competing in her 18th U.S. Women’s Open.
Creamer didn’t play in Houston last year, missed the cut the three previous years and hasn’t had a top-15 finish since 2014, the year of the most recent of her 10 LPGA victories. Her 10-year exemption for winning in 2010 ended last year. The Olympic Club is just 40 miles from where she grew up.
When Creamer turned up at Oakmont the only thing missing from her CV was a major, and she was constantly reminded of it by the media.
“I’ve always thought of my career as I’ve been a pretty solid player, but yes, that question has lurked in my mind ‘How come you’ve never won a major?’” Creamer said after getting the monkey off her back at Oakmont. “I couldn’t have asked to have won a better major championship than this as my first one.”
During her recent down time, Creamer said that she had been able to recharge her emotional batteries as well as regaining full fitness.
She first hurt her hand when she hit a tree root in 2006 but played through the pain until undergoing surgery on her left thumb in March 2010. That was followed by surgery on her left wrist in October 2017.
“The last few months of 2019 and almost all of 2020 I didn’t pick up a club,” Creamer said. “This is now the healthiest I’ve been in over 10 years. It doesn’t hurt to hit a ball, which is fantastic. My thumb and wrist have finally been given enough time to heal.”
She recently missed the cut in her first LPGA event in nearly 18 months but the fact she was pain-free has her going into The Olympic Club with an upbeat attitude.
“Yes, for sure, I had concerns about competing again,” Creamer said. “I was not going to put up with the pain on every shot like I did for so very long. It was going to be no pain or no play.”
That Creamer won at Oakmont so soon after her first surgery was remarkable. Now, as she goes into another U.S. Women’s Open shrouded in uncertainty, Creamer looks back to find inspiration.
“Winning at Oakmont was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Creamer says. “Months prior I was crying on my dad’s shoulder wondering if I would ever be able to play again. Dr. [Thomas] Hunt reconstructed everything because there was so much torn. When he asked me how I played with it like that, I just said that I knew it was going to hurt every time I hit a ball, so I just blocked it out of my mind.”
Dr. Hunt put Creamer on a ball count through the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open and she didn’t hit any balls off the ground other than in competition. All practice and warm-ups were off a tee.
“It was sore all week, but No. 12 on Sunday it really hurt,” she said about the hole where she made her last bogey of the championship. “I was determined to finish strong so I went back to blocking the pain out and stayed focus. It was a great day and it was at Oakmont.
“I didn’t know where I stood [on Sunday] because I never looked at a leaderboard,” Creamer said. “I felt I was in contention because of the crowd but I just kept my head down. I thought, 'Hit your shot and go hit it again. Don’t be looking around. You can do this if you don’t get caught up in the crowd cheering for you.’ ”
“The last five holes were some of the best golf I’ve played and it was on a big stage which has given me confidence over the years,” Creamer said. “Those holes were a test of my determination and my ability to finish strong. It was great to win at Oakmont especially, and never have to answer that dreaded question again"
When Creamer won the 2005 Sybase Classic at the tender age of 18, she became the youngest winner of an LPGA event.
From 2005 through 2014, she won 10 times and missed only 10 cuts. Since then, there have been 42 missed cuts. But she remains upbeat.
“I spent time water skiing, surfing, cooking, reading, and wearing a mask,” she said. “Eventually, as things relaxed somewhat, I spent time with my friends and family. It was great, but now it is time to compete again. I can’t wait.”
At 34 Creamer is back. It would be stretching credibility to imagine that she can win. But she will be trying her heart out, and enjoying every single moment of the experience.
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