Baldry: Paula Creamer matures into a champion

Paula Creamer spent an afternoon with Golfweek director of photography Tracy Wilcox, showing off her off-the-course style.

Paula Creamer spent an afternoon with Golfweek director of photography Tracy Wilcox, showing off her off-the-course style.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Before hopping into her black Range Rover to head to a photo shoot, Paula Creamer took out the trash. She also laid out the ingredients for that night’s dinner (maple-braised pork chops) on the kitchen counter. The woman who grew up in a pink cocoon – coddled by loving parents, an entourage of supporters and fans from around the globe – even cleaned up after her rescue puppy, Tank, who chewed her patio furniture, but thankfully, not her Christian Louboutins.

“I never went to college, so my parents and I never had that separation,” said Creamer, a nine-time winner on the LPGA who purchased her nearly 4,000-square-foot home in the upscale Isleworth community two years ago. “It was time for me to grow up, do things a normal person has to end up doing.”

Creamer, 24, could step out onto her back patio, tee up a ball and hit the roof of her parents’ villa. But that’s not the point. She needed space. And while most 24-year-olds find that in an apartment filled by roommates and hand-me-down furniture, Creamer’s talent affords her upscale, “matchy-matchy” taste in a neighborhood of all-stars. As the only LPGA player who lives in Isleworth, Creamer gets teased about her pink golf balls. (“I don’t take it as well as I give it.”)

The California-born Creamer adores Isleworth because it doesn’t feel like Florida: “You never have to leave the bubble,” she said.

Sidelined last year by an injured left thumb, Creamer spent more time in the idyllic bubble than anyone had planned.

She re-evaluated what’s important, examined her work attitude and tried to live a normal life (normal, at least, for a twentysomething multimillionaire). When the pink cast came off, a more mature Creamer emerged, mentally healthy and, now, physically stronger.

Fourteen weeks later, she won her first major championship, the U.S. Women’s Open at storied Oakmont Country Club.

“I would like to say it would’ve happened anyway, even if I didn’t have to sit at home,” Creamer said. “Who knows? This is what happened, and it made me mature.”

Creamer enters 2011 with specific goals: become the No. 1 American; defend her U.S. Women’s Open title; triumph at the Solheim Cup; and win multiple times. She hasn’t won more than once in a season since 2008.

Juli Inkster, Creamer’s role model and good friend, observed a good balance from Creamer during the season-opening Asian swing, as she mingled more with a variety of people in the evening hours. Creamer’s mother, Karen, traveled with her to Thailand, but Paula was on her own in Singapore.

“I think this year is the most relaxed I’ve ever seen her,” said Inkster, who knows one of the keys to longevity on tour is having fun with friends.

Good health, of course, is another, and though the 50-year-old Inkster never struggled with injury, Creamer’s headlines during the past several years mostly centered around a mysterious stomach ailment she picked up in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the thumb injury that caused her to leave the season-opening event in Thailand last year in tears. She feared the worst: No more golf.

“That was the low point,” said Jay Burton, Creamer’s longtime agent at IMG.

Reconstructive thumb surgery led to a three-month break. She returned at the ShopRite LPGA Classic in June, and three weeks later, shed the best-player-never-to-have-won-a-major label at Oakmont.

“Maybe looking back 10 years from now,” Inkster said, “she might say the injury was the best thing that ever happened to (her).”

A healthy offseason led to diligent work on her body with trainer Chuck Wolf and swing changes with longtime coach David Whelan. Creamer arrived in Asia with a stronger, faster swing that resulted in an extra 15 yards off the tee. She’s a club longer with her irons. Her biggest area of concern is consistency – putting together four solid rounds each week.

Whelan worked on getting Creamer’s grip back in the right place. Swelling in her left thumb had made it difficult to get her right hand on top of her left. Whelan said that strong right grip caused her to be flat and narrow at the top.

“The look now is more on plane at the start, better set to the wrists, wider at the top and a better change of direction from backswing to downswing,” Whelan wrote in an email. “She’s more grounded with her feet through impact.”

Whelan looks at the U.S. Women’s Open victory as a great lesson in how to stay patient. That self-confidence, Whelan believes, along with better management of the par 5s and her emotions, will “help her get to World No. 1.”

• • •

Creamer’s home, a medley of golds and bronzes, has a grown-up feel to it, her pink obsession nearly forgotten until she opens the door to her solid-pink gym, which Creamer concedes is a “little overwhelming.” Even her treadmill, known as “The Pink Highlighter,” is custom-made.

Framed photos adorn the walls and fill bookshelves throughout the home. Most of the faces are familiar – Morgan Pressel, Kathy Whitworth, Tiger Woods, Justin Timberlake, to name a few. She still gets giddy when asked about her encounter with Timberlake on the Old Course in 2007. Old Tom Morris can’t compete with the man who brought “SexyBack.”

On her desk, there’s an F-16 fighterjet model that her parents bought her for Christmas. Creamer flew with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds last September. She’s frequently given encouraging notes from members of the military, not surprising given her Solheim Cup reputation.

“You can’t teach passion,” said Inkster, who will serve as assistant captain Sept. 23-25 in Ireland. “If you were going to draw the perfect person to be on your Solheim Cup, you’d draw a picture of Paula.”

Creamer has roughly 100 pairs of Adidas shoes stacked neatly in her garage. One of her favorites: Her rookie Solheim Cup shoes, which still have tufts of Crooked Stick grass stuck to the spikes.

From the golf bags she had made into barstools to the Graeme Baxter portrait of Creamer on the 18th at the Kraft Nabisco, there’s a balance of tasteful memorabilia. One thing noticeably absent: a trophy case.

“I don’t need to have the trophies around. Except that one,” she said, pointing to her U.S. Women’s Open replica. “That one is OK.”

There’s still a palpable joy that radiates from Creamer when she talks about Oakmont. When she replays that week in her mind, she often goes back to the 17th tee, where her caddie, Colin Cann, insisted that she hit 5-iron on the short par 4. The plan, from the beginning, was to hit driver from the front tee box. Creamer hadn’t looked at a leaderboard. She had deviated from the plan in recent majors, with heartbreaking results. Finally, she trusted Cann.

On the 18th, Creamer hit 7-wood onto the green and then asked Cann if she could look at the board.

“There was only one red number,” said Creamer, who won by four strokes. “I wish I could go back and freeze time. It gave me chills.”

After signing autographs, chatting with the media and toasting club members, Creamer headed back to the house she’d rented. The family sat in the living room, stunned.

“What do we do?” they asked one another. “You plan all the time, what you’re going to do when you win a major.”

The dream day finally had arrived, and the plans were a blur. They wound up at an Italian restaurant that the family had frequented throughout the week. The chef baked a pink cake in Creamer’s honor, and she spent the rest of the night on the phone, rejoicing in a job well done.

• • •

Creamer states confidently that she wants to change women’s golf. Few players on the LPGA connect with fans the way she does. Her commitment to The First Tee and her love for pig-tailed juniors who come out dressed in pink and shyly ask for an autograph fuel Creamer’s drive to succeed. She knows these youngsters not only will try to look like her but act like her, as well.

photo

Paula Creamer spent an afternoon with Golfweek director of photography Tracy Wilcox, showing off her off-the-course style.

“When I was hurt, I looked at a lot of things, and you could tell I wasn’t enjoying it much,” Creamer said. “The year before, I was constantly getting angry . . . and that’s not me.

“(The injury) made me realize I am a role model. (A young fan) shouldn’t be watching me get upset. She should be watching me overcome it.”

With age and maturity comes more responsibility. Creamer was part of a group of top-tier LPGA players who signed a petition two years ago calling for commissioner Carolyn Bivens’ resignation. Bivens’ four-year tenure marked a tumultuous time on the tour, and Creamer learned quickly the importance of looking beyond her scorecard.

Earlier this year, Creamer took a stance on the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup, delaying her commitment to the tournament because she felt the structure of the inaugural event – in which players competed for no prize money – was awry. Creamer, along with fellow Americans Cristie Kerr and Morgan Pressel, expressed concern to commissioner Mike Whan, telling him the amount of money going to charity should match the total purse. Eventually, the charitable donations doubled to $1 million.

“The fact that I was willing to say what I thought, it was a big step,” she said. “A couple years ago, I’m not sure how confident and comfortable I would’ve been or how seriously people would’ve taken me.”

Creamer appreciates that Whan listened to players’ points of view. She recognizes he was “stuck in a corner” going in with the fallout from Bivens’ reign and a struggling economy, but now thinks it’s time to see more domestic events. For 2012, she would like to see Whan add four domestic events to the calendar. It’s a tall order, but Creamer has faith in the product. And she wants more Americans to see it.

“I love being global,” she said. “I love going around the world and playing. But this is my home, and I do want to play here.”

Creamer hardly can wait to get to The Broadmoor, where she’ll defend her U.S. Women’s Open title July 7-10. She went for a test run last year, and likened the undulating greens to Oakmont’s.

After winning the Open, Creamer splurged on a pink Hermes Birkin bag, an extravagent piece of arm candy. Her flair for fashion – whether it’s the silver spiked ankle boots from Christian Louboutin or the collection of flirty, frilly, body-hugging little black dresses that hang in her closet – extends well beyond a bevy of pink ribbons and thick blond curls. Creamer loves to play dress-up, showing fans she’s far more than sporty.

Even as a child, Creamer enjoyed putting on nice clothes to go to dinner. Now she’s a regular on Orlando’s Sand Lake Drive, slipping on heels for a good meal with friends.

“I’m a foodie,” she said.

Creamer threw her first house party for her LPGA peers during the Tour Championship last December. She finally took the cover off of her pink-felt pool table and let her friends break it in.

Asked if the Pink Panther would ever outgrow pink, Creamer said she’d wear it every day if it meant more girls would play golf.

Then she conceded that maybe, years down the road, she might consider a rose hue.

A sophisticated choice.

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