Ten years later …

Paula Creamer's 2010 U.S. Women's Open win was the biggest victory of her career, but not for the reasons you'd think

June 01, 2020
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Sam Greenwood

Memories don’t fade over time when they’re forged from mettle. Ten years on, Paula Creamer remembers vividly all of it—injury, surgery, doubts, pain. Most of all she remembers a simple glance and the message it conveyed, that improbable does not always infer impossible.

Fortitude may not be as lethal as a scalding putter, but it is no less important. And in the summer of 2010, Creamer relied on it relentlessly in overcoming a series of obstacles, some of them painful, and navigating the toughest test on the grandest stage in women’s golf. She won the U.S. Women’s Open at the venerable Oakmont Country Club by four strokes.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s been 10 years. It feels like it was last year,” Creamer said via phone from her Florida home last week. “It was by far one of the most exciting moments of my life walking up to the 18th green on the last day, looking at the scoreboard for the first time, and seeing I was leading by four shots. Especially at Oakmont, one of the hardest courses in the world.”

Anniversaries invite reminiscence, and this was to have been the 10th anniversary of the greatest of Creamer’s 10 LPGA victories. The U.S. Women’s Open was scheduled to be played this week at Champions Golf Club in Houston before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the pause button on life. But the rewind button still works, and from a distance measured in years, a seemingly unlikely victory by one of the LPGA’s most popular players has lost none of its luster.

Only 23 at the time, Creamer already was a winner of eight LPGA events, none of them a major championship, evoking, even at that young age, the tiresome label of best player never to win a major. There was that with which she had to reckon, but it was the lesser of her concerns. In late February 2010, she withdrew from the Honda PTT LPGA Thailand with an injury to her left thumb, and she would not play again until June. On March 30, less than four months before the U.S. Women’s Open, she underwent surgery.

At the time, a terrifying thought occurred to her, that, “oh my gosh, I may never play golf again if the surgery goes wrong.”

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Sam Greenwood

It went according to plan, though taking divots that might aggravate or reinjure her thumb was not part of the plan. When she finally resumed playing tournament golf in June, her warmup routine did not include hitting iron shots off the ground. Instead, she hit only balls that were teed up. Creamer played in three tournaments in advance of the Women’s Open with mixed results that augured at best mediocrity: A seventh, a tie for 42nd and a missed cut.

She had used her time wisely, however. The week before she returned to the tour, she went on a scouting mission to Oakmont, playing a round, taking notes and charting a strategy. “I loved it the first time I saw it. I went around and played just one ball. I was not out to practice. I knew what I needed to practice. Getting up and down would be so important because those greens are so difficult to hit. That definitely helped my preparation.”

She already had done her homework. A year earlier, she had phoned World Golf Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan, who had won the U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont in 1992. “I’ll never forget it,” Creamer said. “I was sitting in the parking lot of my country club, Isleworth [in Windemere, Fla.]. I called her, and she said, ‘What the heck are you calling me for?’ I said, ‘Patty, I need to know how to win at Oakmont.’”

The most important question, however, remained unanswered. How would her thumb hold up? At Oakmont, she got an early indication on the range. “It was my fourth tournament back,” she said. “It was the first time I was able to hit golf balls on the range before a round that weren’t on a tee. The previous tournaments I’d warm up every day with the ball on a tee to save my thumb. I thought that was a monumental step for me.”

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Creamer was tied for eighth after one round, was tied for the lead after the second round and led by three after the third round. On the par-5 12th hole of the final round, she had an uphill lie, “one of those shots where you have to hit straight down into the ball,” she said. The jarring pain the shot caused was such that she “almost went down on the ground,” she said. After applying ice to her thumb, she played on without further issues.

The rest was akin to a victory lap. When she holed her par putt on the 18th green to win, the culmination of talent with a boost of grit and perseverance, she dropped her putter, put her head in her hands and cried.

In the media center afterwards, she was asked how it had happened, how had she won while less than 100 percent healthy. She placed the percentage at 60. “It just shows how much the mental side of golf can really take over. I believed I could do this when I had a cast on my hand. That’s what I just kept thinking about—Oakmont, Oakmont, Oakmont. And here we are. It’s amazing, when you put a plan together, how sometimes it works out. When it does, it’s the greatest feeling.”

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Stuart Franklin

The ensuing years haven’t been so rewarding for Creamer, who won only once more, by holing a 75-foot eagle putt in a playoff at the HSBC Women’s Champions in 2014. At the end of the 2015 season and throughout the 2016 and into 2017 (see photo above from that season), she played through an injury to her left wrist and finally underwent surgery. In 2019, the pain flared up again. She had not yet played in 2020, when the pandemic called a halt to the LPGA season after only four events.

Life, meanwhile, goes on, and her life now includes her engagement to Shane Kennedy, who played baseball at Clemson and briefly in the minor leagues. “Since I didn’t go to college, yes, I’ve got my Clemson hats,” she said. She also has placed her home in the Isleworth community up for sale.

“This has been kind of a nice break for me and my hand,” she said of the time away from golf. “But my desire is always to be the best that I can be. Life changes as you get older and your priorities are different, but that competitive nature will be there forever. I love to compete. Taking that away from someone is tough. I love to win, the pressure of it. I got held back a little bit with injury.

“But I’m definitely not done with my career. I’m excited to get back.”