An American hasn't topped women's golf in 15 years. Paula Creamer, a veteran at 22, is aiming to change that
Bill Clinton was in his second year as President, and Monica Lewinsky was not yet a household name. The World Series was wiped out by a labor dispute, and the baseball record book had yet to be distorted by steroids. Nick Price was the best male golfer, and Beth Daniel earned the LPGA Player of the Year award. Now flash forward from 1994. There have been four Presidential elections and one impeachment; a New York Yankee dynasty came and went, as did the reputations of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens; Tiger Woods ended all arguments about the identity of the best player in men's golf.
But in those 15 years no American has been the best in the women's game, an honor claimed in the meantime by Laura Davies (England), Karrie Webb (Australia), Annika Sorenstam (Sweden) and Lorena Ochoa (Mexico). A stream of Yankee talent bursting with promise—Kelly Robbins, Michelle McGann, Wendy Ward, Kelli Kuehne and Beth Bauer, to name a few—poured out only to see their potential evaporate short of the pinnacle.
With Ochoa coming off a seven-win 2008 season, the last three majors won by players from Taiwan (Yani Tseng) and Korea (Inbee Park and Jiyai Shin)—the oldest being 20— and with only four Americans among the top 20 in the Rolex Rankings, the prospect of snapping that trend anytime soon would appear bleak. But if there is hope for the red, white and blue, it is embodied by the woman in pink, Paula Creamer, who celebrated her eighth birthday between Price's victories in the 1994 British Open and PGA Championship.
With eight LPGA wins at age 22, Creamer has more than double the total for Daniel, Sorenstam and Ochoa combined at the same age. She also shares with that trio a competitive drive that could be interpreted as cocky if not for the fact it is backed with success. She has, as comedian George Carlin characterized desire, "a lotta wanna."
"I don't want to just get there," Creamer says about becoming No. 1, "I want to stay there for a while. I don't want to come and go. Once I get a taste of what I like, I want to keep coming back for more. I've always wanted to make a difference in golf, change things, be a role model and be able to go out there and back it up."
Toward that end, and in realizing that her fifth year on tour may be the time to step up her game, Creamer has put in the most strenuous off-season of her young career, working to make her body stronger, her mind tougher and her formidable short game even better. Sipping green tea and expertly wielding chopsticks into a boatload of sushi at Amura, her favorite Japanese restaurant in Orlando last month, Creamer looks more fit, seems more mature and speaks with a relaxed focus.
"Without a doubt," Creamer says, chopsticks paused in midair, when asked if it would mean a lot to her to end the drought for American women. "I've thought about that, about why there hasn't been another American No. 1," she says. "It's difficult to say why." Then, in the next breath, she answers her own question: "We just have to work harder."
Creamer is a throwback to an earlier generation of American golfers. Think Daniel, Dottie Pepper and Juli Inkster—players whose attitude equaled their talent and whose passion carried them when their skills betrayed them.
"I don't see any real weaknesses in her game," says Daniel, who will be Creamer's captain at this year's Solheim Cup. "What's stopping her from being a dominating player is her length. She can't overpower the par 5s. But she has plenty of length to play on tour."
It's true Creamer doesn't dismantle golf courses. She dissects them, outlasts them, out-thinks them. Among a generation that has fallen in love with swing mechanics and distance, she has not forgotten the point of the game is to get the ball in the hole as soon as possible.
"I look back on my stats, and I realize I am not a long player, I know that," she says about her 246.3 yard driving average, T-79 on tour last year. "I'm getting stronger, my body is still changing with all my workouts, but that doesn't happen overnight. So I looked at what I can improve, and [it's] definitely my short game. I can always make one more putt, and one more putt per round can make a huge difference."
Daniel sees wisdom in that approach. "A lot of players mess up their games by obsessing on length," she says. "She's trying to compensate in other ways. That's smart. She definitely has the potential to be No. 1."