Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 11, 2010

Paula Has The LPGA Feeling In The Pink

For male golfers, at least three of the four major tournaments vie for the designation of “best” or “most important” event of the year. Some prefer the small field and annual return to Augusta National that The Masters offers. Others cite the always rigorous test of the U.S. Open. And still others love the history and links-style play of The Open Championship. But for women there seems to be widespread consensus that the ultimate challenge is the U.S. Women’s Open.

This year’s tournament played out this past week at historic Oakmont Country Club, in the suburbs northeast of Pittsburgh. Built in 1903, Oakmont has hosted more combined USGA and PGA championship events than any club in America, including 8 U.S. Opens, 3 PGA Championships, 5 USGA Amateur Championships, and now 2 editions of the U.S. Women’s Open. The first was in 1992, won by American Patty Sheehan.

But women’s professional golf has become a global sport in the generation since that event, especially in this century. Since 2001, when the current women’s major rotation was set by the Women’s British Open replacing the now defunct DeMaurier Classic, 30 of the 38 majors going into this weekend had been won by non-Americans. As play got underway on Thursday, there was no particular reason to suspect a change in that pattern. In the first thirteen events on this season’s LPGA calendar, only two had been won by an American. Those two were both won by 32-year old Cristie Kerr, who with her runaway 12-stroke win at the year’s first major, the LPGA Championship, became the first American to ascend to the top spot in the relatively new women’s World Golf Rankings.

Kerr figured to be a factor this week, but whether any other Americans would make their mark at their own national championship seemed questionable. Certainly Michelle Wie would not. Tabbed by most of the media as the great hope for the future of women’s golf, Wie’s early career on the LPGA Tour has been unremarkable (in fairness, emphasis must be placed on “early;” Wie is all of 20). While she has one win on Tour, her record in the majors has been dismal. Since finishing tied for third at the 2006 U.S. Open Wie had teed it up in ten major tournaments prior to this week. Her best finish was a tie for 11th at last year’s British Open, and she had missed two cuts and withdrawn once. Wie’s major struggles continued at Oakmont. With rounds of 82 and 76 she added yet another missed cut to her resume.

Also starting play with low expectations was Paula Creamer. The Open was just the third tournament for the crowd favorite since coming back to the Tour after major surgery to repair ligament damage in her left thumb. Still rehabbing the injury, Creamer was limited in the number of balls she could hit in practice, and had to encase her left hand in a large bag of ice after every round. When Friday’s second round was interrupted by torrential rains, the strain of having to play more than 18 holes a day on both Saturday and Sunday seemed likely to eliminate her from contention.

But the 23-year old Creamer, who finished 6th at both of the last two U.S. Opens, seemed to have learned the value of patience during her enforced layoff. Playing steadily, she finished her second round mid-day on Saturday at even par, tied for the lead with Japan’s Sakura Yokomine and one shot ahead of Kerr. The three of them teed off as the final group in the third round late Saturday afternoon. Playing into the evening gloaming, Creamer gradually expanded her lead to three shots before play was called with the final threesome having completed 13 holes, even as her left hand visibly swelled. By the time play was called her golf glove looked more like an oven mitt.

Sunday morning they were back at it, and with a birdie on the 18th Creamer, nicknamed the “Pink Panther” because of her love for the color, had a three stroke lead after 54 holes, and was the only golfer under par. But would her hand hold up for 18 more holes?

Certainly the leadership of the LPGA had to be hoping so. While Kerr is now #1 and a gifted golfer, she readily admits that she got to where she is by flying under the radar. She takes her role seriously, but an eight over par weekend of 75-75 leaves one wondering how comfortable she will be in the spotlight. Creamer on the other hand can best be compared to Phil Mickelson on the men’s tour; an enormously popular and talented golfer who stokes that popularity with an outgoing personality, a ready megawatt smile, and close interaction with the fans at each tour stop. With eight LPGA wins already at just 23, Creamer lacked only a victory at a major (as Mickelson did for so many years), to potentially emerge as the bankable and marketable face of the women’s tour. With the back-to-back retirements of Annika Sorenstam and Lorena Ochoa, the LPGA desperately needs a recognizable face.

This afternoon, on one of the toughest golf courses in the country, Paula Creamer came through. Playing with a calm maturity and focus that belied her age, she made the turn with her three shot advantage intact; thanks to long par-saving putts at the 6th and 8th holes, a comeback birdie on the 5th to offset her only blemish one hole earlier, and an easy two-putt birdie on the reachable par-5 9th hole.

Equally significant, her closest pursuer halfway through the round was South Korea’s N. Y. Choi, who had scorched Oakmont’s front nine with a 31. But Choi had started the final round seven strokes behind Creamer; none of the golfers who had started closest to the leader were moving on her.

The pivotal moment came on the par-5 12th hole. Creamer pulled her drive left into a deep fairway bunker, from which she had no choice but to blast out, advancing the ball no more than fifty yards. With no chance of reaching the green with her third, Creamer’s swing with a fairway metal got a little too steep and she took a sizable divot. She yelped in pain and her face contorted, even as the ball ballooned up in the air. As she walked down the fairway, shaking out her left hand and in obvious pain, half the fans watching were probably wondering if her injury was finally going to ruin her tournament. The rest were no doubt thinking back to the last two U.S. Opens. Yes, Creamer had finished a respectable 6th at both of them. But in both 2008 and 2009 she was in a position to win the tournament before imploding with one spectacularly disastrous hole. Now she lay three on the par-5, still 100 yards short of the green.

Interviewed later, she would talk about how she had matured during the 3 ½ month layoff. I suspect that even more than the time away from the game, the fact that when she went into surgery there was no guarantee that she would be able to play competitive golf again caused her to grow up in a hurry. Whatever the reason, Creamer neither quit because of the pain nor blew up on the hole. She took her medicine, as one has to do at an Open, hitting a wedge safely on the green and two-putting for just her second bogey of the day.

Having stared into the abyss, she then claimed the 2010 U.S. Open as her own. She was safely on each of the remaining greens in regulation. On the 14th she rolled in a twelve foot putt for birdie. On the 15th her approach stopped less than two feet below the cup for a kick-in birdie. When her approach on the 18th found the putting surface, she had two putts for par but could have taken five and still won. When her four foot par putt found the bottom of the cup, she dropped her putter and covered her face as the tears of joy flowed. Paula Creamer had a major championship. The LPGA had a superstar. And golf fans everywhere had learned something new about the U.S. Open. It’s the hardest tournament of all; but a kind place to injured felines. Two years ago a Tiger won the men’s event on one leg. This year the women’s tournament went to a Panther with only one good paw.

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