Paula Creamer still plays with a bandage. What she no longer plays with is a burden.
Even though Creamer won’t turn 24 until a week from Thursday, after she returns from Royal Birkdale and the final LPGA Tour major of the year, few other players so young have received so much scrutiny for failing to win a major.
At least that’s one question she won’t face this week at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.
“No, I’m sure it will be, ‘Do you want to win two in a row?”’ Creamer said with an easy laugh just four days after her U.S. Women’s Open victory at Oakmont.
“I feel like my whole career, it’s always been about majors,” she said. “That was the one thing I didn’t have. And now that I do, I only want more. It’s like opening a can of worms. I can’t wait to play the British Open, because I know what it takes to win.”
Creamer endured some tough lessons along the way.
Three times she was poised to win the U.S. Open, the biggest stage in her sport, only to fall apart with bad swings or a bad decision. As an 18-year-old rookie, Creamer was one shot out of the lead going into the final round at Cherry Hills in 2005 when she closed with a 79. Two years ago, she was one shot behind and in the final group when she shot 41 on the front nine at Interlachen and had to rally for a 78.
Last year at Saucon Valley was the toughest to take. She can live with a bad swing. This was a bad decision. One shot behind going into the third round, she tried to drive the 10th green and wound up making triple bogey, sending her to a 79 and ending her hopes.
But she learned, just as Lorena Ochoa did before her.
On what is reputed to be the hardest golf course in America, with her left thumb bandaged from reconstructive surgery that kept her out four months, Creamer stuck to a conservative plan she cooked up with swing coach David Whelan. She never buckled until she had a four-shot victory at Oakmont.
That gives Creamer nine victories and a major. She has played on three winning Solheim Cup teams, losing only twice in 14 matches. That’s not a bad record for someone still only 23.
By her own admission, however, Creamer is an “old 23.”
She won her first LPGA Tour event a week before going through high school graduation, and in her first Solheim Cup as an 18-year-old, she crushed Laura Davies (7 and 5) in an opening singles match that set the tone. Off the course, she is one of the most marketable players on the LPGA Tour. Creamer has had to learn how to fit in with business executives at corporate outings.
“I think I am older than my age,” she said. “I had to grow up pretty fast. There are times when I’m a young 23, but on the golf course, I’ve definitely matured much faster than my age. But there’s still so much I have to learn.”
Greatness in women’s golf doesn’t wait very long.
Annika Sorenstam won the first of her 10 majors in her second year on tour. Se Ri Pak won two majors as a rookie. Karrie Webb won her first major in her fourth season on the LPGA Tour, and then she had the career Grand Slam two years later.
Creamer is only 23, but this is her sixth year on tour. She risked getting left behind, especially with a thumb injury that caused her to wonder if her career was over much earlier than she had planned.
That’s why it was important to get that first major.
Equally important is where she goes from here. Creamer is No. 7 in the women’s world ranking, although No. 1 has never been so close. There is not a dominant player at the moment, not like Sorenstam when the ranking made its debut, or Ochoa who followed.
Three players have been No. 1 during the last three months -- Jiyai Shin, Cristie Kerr and Ai Miyazato. It gives the LPGA Tour something to talk about every time there’s a change at the top, but what it really needs is a veritable star.
It doesn’t hurt that Americans are starting to show up. Kerr won the LPGA Championship by 12 shots, and Creamer won at Oakmont by four shots. If an American wins at Royal Birkdale, it would be the first time since 1999 that a Yank captured three majors in a year.
“Right now, it’s going to be a battle,” Creamer said. “It’s going to take awhile for one person to dominate. We’ve got eight players, 10 players who can win every week. We’ve never had that. We’ve never had that strength. We had Annika dominate, Lorena dominate. This makes it exciting. But somebody has to push a little.”
Golf is always better off when the game is “King of the Hill” instead of “Musical Chairs.”
Creamer has talked about being No. 1 since she was a teenager and finished second to Sorenstam on the money list as a rookie. That seems like a long time ago. She needs to be a young 23.
“One person is going to have to branch out of that group and work harder than anybody,” Creamer said. “I want to be that person.”