It was the best thing that could have happened to the LPGA, and it happened in a USGA event.
Paula Creamer won the U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont on Sunday, in a gritty performance that was positively Hoganesque.
With her surgically-repaired left thumb bandaged and her practice time strictly limited, Creamer shot her third consecutive subpar round – only two other players in the field had two – to win the Open on the toughest golf course many competitors had ever seen. Predictions for the winning score as the week began were generally around eight-to-ten over par. Creamer finished at three under.
“You don’t go get surgery on your thumb and win a championship,” she said after the round. “I don’t think the odds are very good after that.”
She underwent a procedure in late March to repair stretched ligaments, keeping her off the tour until mid-June. She was told not to hit more than forty practice shots a day, lest she do further damage to the thumb. The rains that interrupted play on Friday meant longer days on the weekend, more holes and more shots and ultimately more swelling for her to feel and ignore.
“It’s probably the swollenest it’s ever been,” she said late Sunday. “It’s overflowing out of this tape right now. I’m afraid to take the tape off to see what it looks like… but it’s very happy now so it’s okay.”
The injury meant that there were shots she couldn’t play – knockdown shots in the wind – and made it all the more imperative to keep the ball in the fairway, knowing how difficult it would be to muster the power to hit from the rough.
For all her Pink Panther trappings and America’s Sweetheart looks, Creamer’s a grinder, and that’s how she approached the final round. She started with a three-shot lead, and while the course set-up allowed plenty of opportunity for birdies on the rain-softened greens, an even-par round was likely to win her the title. When she bogeyed the fourth hole, she immediately struck back with a birdie on five. After her other bogey on 12, she birdied 14 and 15 in the midst of a four-hole stretch of perfect ball-striking that sealed the victory.
“I didn’t look at a leaderboard until the 18th green,” she said. “That was a goal of mine, to just go and play the golf course and if somebody played awesome, then somebody did. I didn’t want to change my game plan…
“I did the clinic with [Arnold Palmer] on Wednesday, and I asked him privately, ‘What do I need to do?’ He said, Not three-putt, and keep your head down the whole time. I listened to that. I know I had some three-putts, but I really didn’t pay attention to other people as much… Looking up, you can start to see a lot of crazy things. I tried to make it as simple as I could.”
Keeping her head down was difficult for the gregarious Creamer, who connects with the galleries as well as any pro, male or female. Coming on the heels of Cristie Kerr’s twelve-shot win in the LPGA Championship, this Open victory means two consecutive major wins for American women, the first time that’s happened since 1999.
It’s been a difficult few years for the LPGA, with tournaments and sponsors disappearing as the economy contracts. The retirements of Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam and Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa left a void at the top of the game, while the explosion of talent from South Korea and Japan has left the casual fan confused by the profusion of Kims, Parks, and Lees. (There were three Kims among the top fifteen finishers at the Open.)
Many pinned their hopes on the charismatic Michelle Wie – who may yet harness her talent and join the top ranks of the sport – but the Open confirmed that there’s depth and quality in American women’s golf. World number-one Cristie Kerr got to within four strokes of the lead before fading down the stretch. Brittany Lang bracketed her Open with 69s, and was one of just three players to reach one over par for the tournament during the final round. Fifteen-year-old Alexis Thompson turned pro last month, and finished tied for tenth in this, her fourth U.S. Open. And Christina Kim – whose book Swinging From My Heels is a boldly candid look at life on the LPGA Tour – showed the substance behind her style and swagger, fighting her balky putter to a tie for eighth.
With Paula Creamer breaking through as a major champion – it seems like “at last,” but she’s just twenty-three – the prospects for the women’s tour are looking better than they have since the heyday of Nancy Lopez. And now that she’s ascended the heights, what’s Creamer got planned for an encore?
“Skydiving,” she said. “If I won my first major, we were gonna go skydiving… Ooh, that’s exciting.”