For Paula Creamer, it was another Sunday in contention at a major.
As I stood near the first tee at Locust Hill Country Club in Pittsford, NY, hundreds of golf fans surrounding the area just below the clubhouse were jockeying for position, hoping to catch a glimpse of the LPGA Tour's most popular player.
Decked out in her signature pink adidas garb, Creamer—aka The Pink Panther—smiled, nearly laughing and maybe even a little embarrassed as the crowd burst into a roar upon hearing her name in the starter's opening introduction.
She set her customary Sunday pink golf ball atop a tee and let it fly, her new neon pink ponytail swinging around in front of her face as she completed her swing.
Creamer was in the hunt again, this time in the final round of the Wegmans LPGA Championship. And she couldn't have been happier.
"I just love to compete," Creamer said enthusiastically during our exclusive 2011 U.S. Women's Open Preview interview for B/R. "And I love to win. But probably equal to that—I love doing what I do. I mean, come on. My job is what millions of people do for recreation. How can you not like that?"
As she walked away from the first tee box, a spectator yelled out, asking if her grandfather was in attendance. She smiled again, acknowledging the question with a quick glance, a nod and a wave.
Paula Creamer is the sweetheart of the LPGA Tour. She has the whole package, as they say—brains, beauty, humility, time for her adoring fans—and yes, she's one of the best golfers in the world, preparing to defend her U.S. Women's Open title this week at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.
It says a lot if you understand what Creamer went through a year ago to win her first major.
It's been well documented. Hampered by the lingering effects of thumb surgery, she wondered if her golf career was over. But she persevered—enduring months of pain and treatment and eventually outlasting a field of 156 of the best female golfers in the world en route to an extraordinary three under par performance at venerable Oakmont Country Club, one of the most historic and most difficult golf courses in the world.
It was certainly the most demanding one Creamer had ever encountered.
"Absolutely," Creamer concurred. "It's rare when you need to respect an eight-inch putt as much as I did, but you really need to do that at Oakmont."
She recently returned to OCC for the first time since her ninth LPGA Tour victory there one year ago and was greeted with a reception in her honor.
"They gave me my own official green Oakmont jacket," Creamer beamed. "I am now a proud honorary member of Oakmont CC. Check out the photos on my Twitter. I challenged a few of the members to a match when I go there in the future."
Her goal this week, as LPGA Tour players face the longest track in U.S. Women's Open history at The Broadmoor, is typical of any USGA event. As Creamer described it, "fairways, greens and patience" will be the recommended prescription for success, as she and coach David Whelan formulate a game plan for all 7,047 yards.
"I was able to play Broadmoor last fall, and then again at media day a few weeks ago," Creamer said. "As usual, the course I played will not be the same course come tournament week, but it was still great to have a few looks. By Thursday’s opening round, I’ll be ready."
Creamer can say that with confidence, as she has stepped up her game recently. With her T3 finish at the LPGA Championship just two weeks ago, she now has five top 10 finishes in 2011 and statistically ranks in the top 10 in scoring average and greens in regulation—not to mention money earned. Creamer also surged to No. 8 in the Rolex Women's World Golf Rankings, and she's currently in fourth place in U.S. Solheim Cup points.
"I’m working on some things with my game, but I feel it’s really good right now," she said assuredly. "I plan to take these positive feelings into the Open. Now that I have tasted major victory, it makes me want to taste it again and again. I always believed I could win a major. But now I know I can do it. There’s no reason I can’t win it this year, too."
If Creamer's track record at the U.S. Women's Open over the past five years is any indication, she'll do just that. She finished T16 in 2006 and 2007, T6 in 2008 and 2009, and first, of course, last year.
Still, with the accolades a major championship victory produces, it hasn't changed who Creamer is as a person. It did change the demands on her time, which she admitted is a good problem to have. But she's still the one fans drive hours to see. And she's the one the little girls want to be like.
In fact, even in the heat of competition, Creamer takes the time to acknowledge young fans who come to the golf course dressed in pink, watching her every move.
"I think it’s great," she said. "If what I say or what I do affects others who look up to me as a role model, that pleases me so much."
It's clear Paula Creamer's golf game is in the right place. And so is her heart.