OAKMONT, Pa. – Her left hand so badly injured she couldn’t play for four months, the future of her golfing career in doubt, Paula Creamer found relief by turning on her DVD player.
She wasn’t interested in watching a movie or a concert. Instead, she carefully studied Angel Cabrera hold off competitor after competitor to win the 2007 U.S. Open at rugged-as-it-gets Oakmont Country Club.
Creamer, an eight-time LPGA winner but never the champion of a major, calculated how to putt on Oakmont’s often-diabolical greens late in a tournament. But she also took time to imagine winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont, even if such a victory seemed illogical at best given the severity of her injury and the length of her recovery.
Wonder of wonders, Creamer surprised even herself with the ease of her 4-stroke victory that she completed Sunday despite a thumb that is only 60 percent healthy and a reputation for winning lesser tournaments but not a big one.
In women’s golf, this is as big as it gets.
“I believed I could do this, even when I had a cast on my hand,” Creamer said, her smile as bright as her all-pink attire. “That’s just what I kept thinking about – Oakmont, Oakmont, Oakmont. And here we are. It’s amazing how, when you put a plan together, sometimes it works out.”
But how could she possibly plan this?
Limited to 40 practice shots a day because her still-healing hyperextended left thumb swells badly, Creamer was forced to play 52 holes over the final two days – 29 on Saturday, 23 on Sunday – after Friday’s heavy rains suspended play. That was far more punishment than she expected, especially on a course so physically demanding.
“You just don’t get surgery on your thumb and win a championship,” Creamer said. “I don’t think the odds are very good after that. But I believe things happen for a reason, and I think what’s happened made me a stronger person. It’s just will. I’m in pain, but I’m going to play.”
Perhaps, too, adjusting her game to a still-healing hand forced her to focus on the basics and steered thoughts away from all the doubts that can creep into a golfer’s head, especially one who hasn’t excelled in majors.
This time, she couldn’t have played better or with more consistency. She went 72-70-70-69 to finish at 3-under 281, the only golfer below par. She began the final round off a birdie on No. 18 during the early morning completion of the third round, and her four-shot lead never dropped below two shots even as Na Yeon Choi of South Korea pushed her with a final-round 66.
Choi and Suzann Pettersen of Norway tied for second at 1-over 285. In Kyung Kim, also of South Korea, was alone in fourth place at 286.
“It shows you how much the mental side of golf can really take over,” Creamer said.
Creamer’s two biggest confidence-building shots might have been long, par-saving putts on No. 7 and 8. She effectively wrapped it up by hitting to within 10 feet out of the thick rough on the par-4 14th and dropping a 10-footer for birdie.
Only she didn’t know it; she never looked at a leader board until the 18th. She hit another exceptional mid-iron to 4 feet on the 442-yard 15th and made that, too.
Now, she doesn’t have to hear she’s the best LPGA golfer not to win a major. She won eight tournaments by age 21 but, bothered by the worsening thumb injury, she hadn’t won since 2008.
“That question always lurked, `How come you never won a major?’ said Creamer, a Pleasanton, Calif., native who is only the second American in six years to win the U.S. Women’s Open. “Now we never have to get asked that question again. It’s kind of a big relief off my shoulders.”
Most of all, a big relief off that thumb.
After years of domination by international golfers, primarily the South Koreans, Creamer and Cristie Kerr have won the last two majors. Kerr won the LPGA championship by 12 shots three weeks ago, but never developed a consistent game at Oakmont and placed 17th.
Another encouraging development for American golf: Alexis Thompson, only 15, was one of the longest hitters while finishing 10th in her fourth Women’s Open. Brittany Lang also was steady with a pair of 69s while tying for fifth.
“You know, there’s a huge Asian influence on our tour, but I think we’ve proved in the last couple of months that the Americans are there,” Creamer said. “We all learn from each other and motivate each other.”
Now, Creamer can provide motivation to golfers who believe they can’t overcome adversity or misfortune. After reinjuring her thumb in the first LPGA tournament of the season in Thailand, she was worried her game wouldn’t recover.
“I thought, `Gosh, I might never play again,”’ she said.
Despite her prior success, there were no suggestions she could play this well in only her fourth tournament since returning. She was 42nd at the LPGA Championship, and she missed the cut last week at the Jamie Farr Classic.
“Without a doubt, I’ve matured over the last couple of months,” Creamer said. “It was hard. I’ve prepared for this for the last three months and it makes everything so much better.”