OAKMONT, Pa. – When Dr. Thomas Hunt cut open Paula Creamer’s left thumb three-and-a-half months ago, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Before the surgical procedure, he told Creamer’s parents in his Birmingham, Ala., office that it would take a little more than an hour to tighten up stretched ligaments.
More than three hours later, after reconstructing her thumb, he told Paul and Karen Creamer what they already knew.
He told them their daughter must be one fierce little competitor with a hell of a threshold for pain.
“He asked, `How is it possible that she played golf for seven months with a thumb like that?’” Paul said.
Papa and Mama Creamer knew what the doctor surmised before asking.
It’s the same answer the Creamers will offer if you ask them how it is their daughter won the U.S. Women’s Open Sunday with that reconstructed thumb swelling so profusely that it was straining to break the support tape wrapping it.
Or if you ask them how it is she tamed brutish Oakmont Country Club just seven weeks after she began hitting golf balls in her comeback from the surgery.
“Determination, willpower, refusal to quit,” Paul Creamer says. “That’s the blend with Paula.”
Dr. Hunt could see those qualities when he cut open Creamer’s thumb in late March. He could see them realizing she was playing golf for more than half a year with a torn ulnar collateral ligament, a torn volar plate and a damaged tendon.
Anyone watching Creamer play the 12th hole Sunday could see what won her this championship.
After hitting her approach into the green there, she hopped off her shot, howling and yelping in pain. It was the first time she let anyone see the pain like that this week.
Her caddie, Colin Cann, said Creamer felt jolts like that more than once in shooting 2-under-par 69 Sunday marching to her 3-under 281 total.
“She’s just used to hiding it well,” he said. “That one there, it really shot up her arm.”
Doctors told Creamer she couldn’t hurt the thumb any worse playing this summer, so she returned to tournament golf four weeks ago. She did so determined to get herself ready for Oakmont knowing her thumb wouldn’t be fully healed yet. She did so because she hated missing the first major of her career in April withdrawing from the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She did so because she desperately wanted to make the U.S. Women’s Open her first major championship triumph.
“I believed I could do this,” Creamer said. “I believed I could do this when I had a cast on my hand. What I just kept thinking about was `Oakmont, Oakmont, Oakmont.’ And here we are. It’s just amazing.”
Creamer, 23, arrived at Oakmont with eight LPGA titles but no majors among them. She was asked about the hole in her resume upon arriving at every major the last four or five years.
“We never have to get asked that question again,” Creamer said.
Creamer won this week with a brilliant all-around game. She showed no weaknesses. She ranked third in fairways hit, eighth in greens in regulation, third in putting and was a respectable 47th in driving distance.
That isn’t what won her the championship, though. Not really. They’re just the byproducts of the willful spirit that won this.
The journey that ended with her hoisting the U.S. Women’s Trophy began long before she stepped foot on Oakmont. There were lessons losing the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen two years ago and at Saucon Valley last year. A shot off the lead after 54 holes at Interlachen, she closed with a disappointing 78. A stroke off the lead going into the third round at Saucon Valley, she shot herself out of contention with a 79. She put up those scores in the final groups.
There were lessons learned losing, but there were even larger lessons not even playing.
Twenty months ago, Creamer contracted that mysterious stomach malady. She lost more than 10 pounds and endured great angst visiting specialist upon specialist trying to find out what was wrong with her. She never got an answer with the malady plaguing her for almost a year. And with the stomach pains finally leaving her last summer, she hurt her thumb hitting a shot out of the rough at the Wegmans LPGA. For nine months, she couldn’t shake the pain. There was a mystery to that injury with Creamer visiting four hand specialists.
“We explored every possibility,” Paul said. “We left no stone unturned.”
The hand specialists all agreed that she was suffering from stretched ligaments. She was prescribed rest and rehab. So Paula rested and rehabbed, but she couldn’t shake the injury.
The family visited the Louisville Slugger factory to have a special glove made to help her. It didn’t work. They visited the Philadelphia Phillies, where the training staff made special splints for her. Those didn’t work either.
Through it all, the angst of not knowing what was wrong hurt Creamer as much as the pain.
“There was a time before my surgery where I thought, `Oh my gosh, I may never play golf again,” Paula said.
With the thumb pain unrelenting, Paul and Karen saw what nobody else did.
Before the surgery, they saw their daughter’s fear.
“All the doctors had said the same thing,” Paul said. “They said avoid surgery at all costs.
“It was an emotional time. It really was. She put her head on my shoulder one night at home and cried because she didn’t know if she would ever play again.”
The U.S. Women’s Open, more than any other major championship in women’s golf, is about pain and suffering. In the end, nobody was more prepared to endure the punishment Oakmont would dish out than Creamer. Nobody was more determined to overcome it.