Editor's Note: In February 2008 Fairways + Greens featured American LPGA star Paula Creamer on its cover for a special issue honoring women in golf. As Creamer joins her fellow competitors at Blackwolf Run for the 2012 U.S. Women's Open and looks to regain the title she won in 2010, here's a look back at her early career and rise to the top of the women's golf firmament.
Imagine your kid winning her first professional golf tournament before even before she’s donned the cap and gown to pick up her high school diploma. Imagine that scenario eight years earlier, when she was only 10 and the game was but a fun day out in the Northern California sun with dad, and nothing more. Imagine your daughter’s strong yet delicate swing, mega-concentrated countenance and Tiger-esque work ethic carrying her to three more victories in America before her 21st birthday, and throw in two more overseas triumphs for the heck of it.
Imagine it all — the pro success, the slew of amateur wins preceding it, the fame and big endorsement contracts — blowing by in a pink whirl, a “happy” hued flash from her hair bow to her self-styled Sundogs to her smackin’ new adidas. And now imagine, after all the hard work and cross-country family relocation and competitive milestones, that your little girl-turned-young woman isn’t even close to satisfied, nowhere near done making her mark in the LPGA annals.
Imagine? Pshaw. Paul and Karen Creamer don’t need no stinking imagination. They’ve seen it all unfurl for real, through each of their daughter’s pinpoint drives and dialed-in irons and pressure-soaked putts, through her close calls and clear-eyed clinchers. And even now they might stop each other now and then, stand there in the dry Palm Springs heat or sultry shade of an East Coast oak, and ask themselves what’s next for Paula.
No. 1, that’s what.
Make no mistake, Paula Creamer has that and only that numeral in her mind as the 2008 LPGA season’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco March 31-April 6 at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, Calif., comes into view. Already she’s shown signs of making this year her personal trophy drive: At the Fields Open in Hawaii in later February, she rattled off four birds in the final five holes to pass Jeong Jang and notch her fifth tour win overall. “I just tried to stay patient out there,” she said afterwards in that still-a-kid-but-not-really voice of hers. “I knew I had to make some birdies to win. It was fun.”
Let’s hope she likes having fun, again and again. Her loose, smiling, pink ball-burning performance in Hawaii nearly overshadowed that of Tiger Woods over on the guy’s side of the big league fence, matching his come-from-behind fireworks in the Accenture Match Play the same weekend. It’s no secret Tiger is shooting for the calendar year Grand Slam, and it’s not a stretch to call Creamer a candidate to do the same on the women’s circuit, even with a resurgent Annika Sorenstam, Lorena Ochoa and a slew of Korean stars right there to push her every shot of the way.
Not to say 2007 was a bust: Though Mexican sensation Ochoa enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in LPGA history and Morgan Pressel notched her first major, Creamer took the mantle as America’s best female golfer with three wins and $1.4 million in earnings (third on the money list), and became the youngest female player ever to $3 million. But to her, it wasn’t nearly good enough.
“I definitely have my sights set on getting to No. 1. To do that, I realize that I need to win at least one major and a few other events as well,” Creamer told FG in January. “The world rankings are very heavily skewed toward a major winner. The rankings don’t necessarily indicate who is playing the best recently, since they are a result of the latest two years of play. I am by no means satisfied with my six worldwide wins in my first three years on tour. I expect more from myself.”
Chances are her dad recognized the high bar his daughter had set for herself, even before she realized she had the right stuff to go pro. But he wasn’t about to push her. Instead, pure enjoyment was paramount in the Creamer family, and if excellence was meant to be, it would follow naturally.
She took up the game at age 10 at Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, Calif., where Paul was a member. “He made it fun for me, so I never stopped wanting to play,” Cramer told FG contributor Hal Quinn in Canada’s ScoreGolf magazine. “I probably didn’t realize I might be good enough to play on the Tour until I was about 15, but my goal to play at the highest level dates back to when I was about 13.”
That’s when she dug in and got to work, building on what local teachers Larry O’Leary and the late Ernie Barbour had taught her.
“They instilled a true love for the game in me at an early age. Then David Kern and Jonathon Hughes worked with me for a few years as I became a little older. I saw all them when I played in Northern California this past September [at the Longs Drugs Challenge], which was great. It was especially good seeing having an opportunity to talk with Ernie before he passed away. They always made the game fun for me, so I didn’t really look at it as practice or work, but rather, going out and having fun. I hope aspiring juniors today get to work with coaches that keep it fun. I think that is so important for everyone to remember, including parents.”
And it’s the parents of young girls now taking up the sport — and hoping to follow in her footsteps — for whom Creamer saves this advice: “If it looks as if your daughter really wants to make the sacrifices needed to get to the LPGA Tour, then encourage her but make it fun for her. Make sure it’s what she wants to do, and not what you want her to do or what she ‘thinks’ you want her to do. My parents gave me every opportunity to develop my skills and ultimately allow me to pursue my career goal as a professional golfer, but they never forced or pushed me too hard in it. That remains true today. My dad always said he would make the opportunity available to succeed, but he wouldn’t hit the ball for me. He has done that for me my whole golf career. Don’t tell him, but I wouldn’t want him to hit it for me now, either. I like staying in the fairway.”
Creamer’s path to the Tour became clear when she was all of 14, and despite her love for those childhood mentors, she urged a move to Florida’s IMG Acadeny so she could get plenty of one-on-one time with David Leadbetter to battle-harden her game. Her folks made the sacrifice, and it paid off: In the next three years she knocked down 19 national amateur titles and logged five top 20s in test-the-water LPGA outings. She turned pro as a high school senior, with one clear goal.
“I did not want to be a player who took two to three years to win on tour,” she said. “David — my coach, who I always beat when we have putting contests — said I would win in my first 10 events. Well, my ninth event was the Sybase Classic and I won. David always reminds me of his prediction.”
Creamer went on to enjoy a phenomenal rookie year by any standard but her own, finishing second to Annika Sorenstam on the money list with over $1.1 million, two wins and ten top 10s in 17 events. The second win came at the Evian Masters in France, prompting a celebration centered on Creamer’s avowed twin loves of shopping and fashion. Since then she’s become a fashion maven of sorts on Tour, not only for her pink outfits (that would be her pink Precept center-cut on the fairway or rattling into the cup), but for her well-documented assertion that if golf was out of the picture, she’d be a clothing designer.
In a way she’s already getting that chance through partnerships with TaylorMade/Adidas, where she shares top billing with fellow LPGA star Natalie Gulbis, and Canada-based Sundog Eyewear. “Fashion is my second love, next to golf,” she says. “I get equal enjoyment out of all fashion areas and spend a lot of time deliberating on what to wear on and off the golf course. I like creating new styles and am getting more involved in it each year.”
Chuck Presto, TaylorMade-adidas’ vice president of global marketing, said it was a no-brainer signing Creamer as a teenager. Her bright smile, wholesome good looks and sartorial flair would no doubt put their products in the best possible light, pink or no. “She has a real passion for the apparel,” he says. “She’s very fashion-focused and fashion-forward with adidas. That’s probably an area we spend more time communicating with her on, just because there’s more products coming out, more seasons and lines and colors and designs, and we want to make sure she’s a part of it, she’s excited about it.”
It’s a similar story at Sundog, which takes her input seriously in their golf-specific shade designs, just as they do with men’s tour stars Mike Weir and Hunter Mahan. She helped them roll out her new signature line at the PGA Merchandise Show in January. “I take great pride in helping the guys at Sundog develop sunglasses which are not only performance oriented, but have a flair for fashion and look good, whether on or off the golf course,” she says. “The design freedom they have allowed me is why I love it so much. I’m excited about the new collection.”
As for her real tools of the trade — the clubs — Presto puts Creamer in the “low maintenance” category among TaylorMade’s impressive list of marquee players. “Paula is a pleasure to work with from that perspective. She’s so darn good, not fussy with her equipment. She’s a lot like Sergio Garcia; those are two players at the top of the golf world that we don’t see in the [truck very often. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. We like see them, to be social with them and stay in touch, but for their equipment needs, we get her dialed in when a product is new, and she’ll run the year with it, other than a few grips and maybe an adjustment here or there. She’s very easy to work with, and always has been.”
She also happens to be a full-throttled competitor and a proven winner, two traits that really attracted TaylorMade’s attention when Creamer was only 14 (they signed her at 19). “We spotted her a long time ago as not only a pretty young girl — now a pretty young woman — but a girl who could not only play, but had that mental focus,” Presto says. “She’s tenacious. We love that. She’s competitive, one of the great young players right now. We see her as a Hall of Famer before her career’s over, no doubt about it.”
The march toward that ultimate goal continues this season, but first things first: Nailing down her elusive first major. Not that there isn’t competition, and lots of it. Though would-be rival Michelle Wie bides her time at Stanford, looking to revive her standing with the public and the media and become the tour force everyone expected, there are the large and talented Korean and Swedish contingents fighting for leader board space. There’s Ochoa, on the top of the world with no sign of backing off. There’s Annika, due for a revival after last year’s injury-plagued run. There’s Pressel, the bulldog from Florida, and fellow Northern Californians Gulbis and Juli Inkster — the latter one of Creamer’s role models along with Nancy Lopez.
“They were my idols as I was growing up through junior golf,” she says. “They still are, actually, although it’s neat that they are now my friends, too. I think it’s remarkable how each of them have been champions, Hall of Famers, yet they have been terrific moms and wives and raised their families as well. I don’t know how they balanced everything. Since they’ve done it, I hope I can learn from them so that someday when I get married and have a family I can be a good mom like they have been.”
For now, it’s their on-course success she seeks, and all the competition from contemporaries and veterans alike only fuels Creamer’s hunger. “I am working on all parts of my game,” she says. “There are so many parts of golf that you need to be proficient at, if you want to be the best. As soon as you dwell too much on one area then other areas begin to let you down under pressure. That is what makes golf so hard, actually.”
Still, like all natural athletes, she makes it look easy, especially on the greens, where last year she ranked tied for third in putting average at 1.78, tied with six others just a couple hundredths of a stroke behind Ochoa and Catriona Matthew. (She also ranked second in scoring average, third in rounds in the 60s, fifth in greens in regulation, sixth in birdies, and 13th in driving accuracy.) Creamer sizes up her flatstick prowess in simple and characteristically self-effacing terms. “I’ve been working hard on my putting, but don’t forget, to make the putts, you’ve got to give yourself a lot of chances by hitting it close,” she says. “A lot of the good putting stats are a result of good iron play, especially when within 100 yards or so. I know I am one of the best iron players on tour and have developed into a decent putter. I will continue to work on creative putting which will help me long term. I don’t make as many putts as I think I should.”
That’s probably true of golfers at every level, but Creamer takes her mistakes personally. Every lip-out costs thousands of dollars and a mis-hit could mean a missed cut. As she says, golf is hard game. But for someone so young, she’s amazingly seasoned and even-keeled out there. She’s got a Nicklausian manner of sizing up every shot and situation, but when it comes time to pull the trigger, her inner Tiger — make that “Pink Panther” — comes out.
“I’ve had to learn to channel my emotions, both after good as well as ‘not so good’ shots,” she admits. “Once a shot is over, it’s over. No rejoicing or moaning will change the outcome. It’s the next shot I need to immediately start focusing on. This is very hard to do sometimes and I am continually working on it. The intensity [people see] is the focus that I have when competing. It takes a lot out of me to keep the focus throughout a four-plus hour round, but it can be done. I want to win and therefore, I have to be able to control my emotions.”
Underlying that control is a consistent support system. For Creamer it’s her family and, these days, her caddy. “I got into golf because it was something my dad did a lot and I wanted to be with him. After I learned a little about golf and could hit the ball somewhat decent, I realized I liked it because the outcome was a result of me and me alone. There is no one else to blame or even lean on. I really liked that aspect. Now I have a caddy and sometimes I work Colin over pretty well. Colin is great and knows how to handle me and my intensity pretty well. Having a permanent professional caddy is a big difference between amateur and professional golf.”
So is the level of the responsibility and the need to blow off steam between events and during the off-season, even for someone as well-adjusted as Creamer. Take a look at her beyond the course and the commercial shoots and paid appearances, past the stresses of travel and time zone hopping, and you’ll find the unmistakable trappings of a young life well lived — pretty much the same day-to-day, all-American scene played out by millions of upper-middle class kids. She packs her iPod with an eclectic mix of music from “Top 40 to country, pop, classic rock, hard rock, rap, hip-hop, you name it. And, none of it is in any kind of order. I can go from Avril Lavigne straight into Elvis Presley.” Mostly, there’s a lot of fun and a certain measure of adventure built into what’s certainly a hectic schedule. There’s even a sliver of time for other sports.
“I do spend time with friends and family doing all sorts of different things,” Creamer says. “I went to Magic Kingdom at Disney World recently and had a blast! I bike, I work out, and I like to eat at various restaurants. I am in the process of getting a wave runner soon and want to get really good on it. I’m trying to play more tennis, but the WTA doesn’t need to worry about me joining their tour anytime soon.”
While Creamer’s backhand will never put her at Centre Court, her celebrity has already opened doors — some exciting, some humbling — that she couldn’t have cracked as just another up-and-coming golfer. “Lots of good things have happened to me in my first three years. I feel fortunate just meeting so many people in all walks of life. I’m just 21 years old, yet I’ve been in the Oval Office twice already!” she says, letting the kid shine through. “ I met Justin Timberlake while at the home of golf itself — the Old Course at St. Andrews! We are going to play golf together down the road. And I also spent several hours at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center visiting the troops that recently returned home. Although I didn’t like seeing the guys hurt, I think it was one of the most inspiring days of my life. It really reminded me that while I am out on tour playing golf, simultaneously people, some younger but mostly older than me, are risking their lives so that I can have the freedom to play the game in a safe environment.”
And a pink one, too — making Creamer instantly recognizable a couple of fairways away. The bubble-gum hue is her calling card, but she contends there’s no underlying feminine statement. It’s just her favorite, that’s all.
“I really am not a feminist. I play the pink ball because when Precept came to me with the idea, I thought it was cool, since I’ve always loved the color pink. It typifies my personality — happy, with a very strong side to it. And it seems to have become an ‘in’ color these days. People tell me all the time that so many girls on tour are wearing pink now because of the attention I have brought to it. If the LPGA Tour were to suddenly ban pink, I think I’d probably go look for another Tour to play on.”
Not likely. Creamer is as key to the tour’s increasing visibility, growing TV market share and carefully balanced, youth-driven sex appeal as anyone else out there. And as with Tiger’s Sunday red or Annika’s preferred shades of black and white, Creamer Pink keeps gaining that certain unmistakable glow: The glow of greatness, of victory, of major accomplishments. That will happen this year — the call here is she’ll win the Nabisco, and perhaps a little ol’ championship contested in Minnesota this June since “I like the setup of U.S. Opens.”
But no matter how many Ws she racks up this year, Creamer knows she’s a central player in what are clearly halcyon days for the women’s circuit, and she’s ready to help ratchet up the excitement level. “The LPGA is really getting stronger and stronger globally,” she says. “Since I like to travel, the expansion is not difficult for me. Having events in France, the UK, Japan, Korea, South Africa, Mexico, Thailand, Singapore, etc., broadens our reach and hopefully grows the game in other parts of the world. I’m looking forward to playing in China sometime soon as well. Hopefully that is another of our next frontiers.
“As far as being a young player, I have never looked at golf that way. I expected to win when I turned pro at 18 in 2005, and I was fortunate enough to do it twice that year. I had no interest in waiting a few years. The golf ball or golf course does not care at all how old you are, so I do not get wrapped up in that.”
Wise for her years? Imagine that.
Vic Williams is Publisher of Fairways + Greens Magazine, a Madavor Media publication. He has written hundreds of stories for the magazine since its inception in 1997, on every subject under the golfing sun. A California native, he lives and works in Reno, Nev.