DALY CITY, Calif. – Paula Creamer’s first tee shot Thursday at the Swinging Skirts Classic sailed right and into a small stand of trees.
It never came down.
Marshals and fans were left scratching their heads, wondering where it went and how it could have disappeared. After looking around, Creamer couldn’t make sense of it, either. So she took a penalty for a lost ball and headed back to the tee box.
That is not how she envisioned beginning a “homecoming week” that means so much to her. Creamer grew up in Pleasanton, just 40 miles east of Lake Merced Golf Club.
Her return home would prove a long, hard march through the first round with her husband, Derek, and her parents, Paul and Karen, and so many good friends in tow. She’s a 10-time LPGA winner, a proud competitor, and she’s so adored in these parts. That’s what made her struggle so difficult, because she wanted so hard to please all those people who came out to root for her.
Creamer opened with a triple bogey after the lost ball, made another triple bogey on her front nine, and at day’s end signed for an 82, her highest score in 11 seasons as a pro. It follows her 78 in the final round at the Lotte Championship last weekend.
“It’s very frustrating,” Creamer told GolfChannel.com after Thursday’s round. “I’m very hard on myself, but I’m a fighter. I’m very positive, and I’m going to keep fighting.”
That’s what this is now for Creamer, a fight. At 28, she’s in a place she has never been. Creamer’s in transition, not just with a new swing, but with new equipment and a completely new life as a newlywed.
She has slid to No. 27 in the world rankings, her lowest position since the rankings debuted in 2006.
“Right now, it’s right between my ears,” Creamer said. “I’m not afraid to talk about it. It’s 99 percent mental.”
Last year was such an emotionally complicated year for Creamer. She roared through a high in her personal life and a frustrating low in her professional life.
Creamer married Derek Heath, a United Airlines pilot, in December. She called her wedding “a perfect day, everything I imagined and more.” The couple honeymooned in New Zealand and Bora Bora.
As a player, last season wasn’t what Creamer imagined it would be.
Though she won at year’s start, Creamer slipped to 22nd on the LPGA money list at year’s end, the lowest finish of her career. She saw her streak of consecutive cuts made end at 82 when she failed to make the weekend at Kingsmill. She also missed her first cut in a major as a pro when she didn’t make the weekend at the LPGA Championship.
Most revealing of all, Creamer finished 51st in greens in regulation. Consistently one of the game’s best iron players, she led the tour in GIR in ’09. She never finished worse than seventh in that category in her first eight years on tour.
It appears to be a complicated equation. There’s a swing change and its evolution at work. There are new irons in the bag resulting from that swing change. There’s also evolving priorities as a wife with a new lifestyle.
About that swing change ...
Before last year, Creamer went searching for more distance. She huddled with her long-time swing coach, David Whelan, and they went to work changing her swing with her driver. The descending blow that made Creamer such a strong iron player created too much spin with her driver. They worked on getting her to swing more up on the ball with her driver.
“When you’re trying to improve one area, you can sacrifice another,” Whelan said. “It was always a gamble.”
Creamer struggled with it most of last year.
“For a while, I had two different swings,” Creamer said. “They would cross.”
Complicating that was the unique design of Creamer’s irons. She routinely had her irons bent to be 3 degrees weaker than a standard iron. That made a 7-iron more like a strong 8-iron. It helped her hit higher shots. With the swing change, and with technology changing the nature of the bounce of her new irons, Creamer struggled making the same crisp strikes.
“I got better with my driver, but I was working so hard on driver I almost lost my iron swing,” Creamer said. “My strike was all over the place.”
Creamer didn’t realize how her new swing was affecting the nature of the bounce on irons bent to be “weaker.” She didn’t realize it until her caddie, Colin Cann, pointed it out last year.
“It was almost like my irons were bouncing and skidding,” Creamer said. “Even my friends told me my irons didn’t sound the same. They weren’t as crisp.”
Creamer tried to fix that this year switching out her TaylorMade RSi irons, keeping the newest set to standard lofts. She likes the fit now, and she believes these last two rounds notwithstanding, she’s honing a better game.
“It’s just that right now, my misses are a little bit bigger but my good shots are very good,” Creamer said.
Lake Merced, with its tree-lined fairways and cabbage-like rough, punished Creamer’s bigger misses in Thursday’s round. Creamer’s stats weren’t actually bad. She hit 11 fairways, only missed seven greens, but her bigger misses led to those two triple bogeys and four bogeys. She didn’t make a single birdie putt.
Creamer believes her swing is better than it was last year, but she knows there’s lost confidence to be won back working through these changes.
“It’s frustrating, but I’m staying positive,” Creamer said.
The frustration is compounded wanting the changes to come together this homecoming week.