By DAVE SCHEIBER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 18, 2005
Hours before she handily disposed of veteran Laura Davies, helping lead the U.S. team to victory last weekend at the Solheim Cup, the young golf sensation with a passion for pink and penchant for predictions was having a little fun.
You would never have known that Paula Creamer, the 19-year-old LPGA rookie of the year and Bradenton's new million-dollar baby, was getting ready for the biggest moment of her fledgling pro career.
"We're walking to the practice tee before the match with Laura and there's a huge number of people there and the policemen are walking in front of us," recalls her coach, David Whelan. "And she's walking behind me, trying to trip me up! And I'm saying to the crowd, "Yeah, I gotta put up with this every day.' "
The light moment captured the essence of the most surprising story in women's golf this year. The cream of the crop of standout young players on the tour possesses not only a killer instinct in competition, but the playful disposition you would expect of a teenage girl.
Or, as Whelan put it wryly when a writer at the recent Women's British Open commented on Creamer's uncommon maturity as a golfer: "You didn't have to listen to Hilary Duff full blast at 6 a.m. on the way to the golf course."
Her blend of adolescent energy away from the game, and stoic resolve while playing it, is part of what makes Creamer - only four months removed from her high school graduation - such an engaging new presence in the galaxy of female golfers. Attractive and tall at 5 feet 9, with long brown hair and green eyes, she loves to browse fashion shops at the mall and listen to tunes on her pink iPod. Oh, and by the way, she was good enough at 18 to become the first amateur and youngest ever to win the LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament, prompting her to immediately turn pro in December and put off plans for college.
While 15-year-old amateur prodigy Michelle Wie dominated headlines much of this year, Creamer wound up owning the youth movement spotlight.
She has gone about her business like a cool-handed veteran, winning two LPGA tournaments (the Sybase Classic in New York and the Evian Masters in Paris), racking up eight top-10 finishes and passing the $1-million earnings mark faster and at a younger age than anyone in LPGA history. In fact, she trails only tour superstar Annika Sorenstam and Cristie Kerr in prize money this year with $1,241,243.
Last month, Creamer won a Japan LPGA event, the NEC Karuizawa tournament, shooting a 4-under-68 to defeat that country's most popular player, Ai Miyazato. For the record, the triumph gave her victories on three continents: North America, Europe and Asia.
It's all part of an unfolding journey for the kid who, five years ago, swapped the San Francisco Bay area for the Tampa Bay area. Creamer moved with her father and mother, Paul and Karen Creamer, to study with ex-European pro Whelan at Bradenton's David Leadbetter Golf Academy, a division of IMG Academies.
You might expect to hear a bubbly voice when she calls just before leaving for Carmel, Ind., to compete in the Solheim Cup. But Creamer comes across as self-assured and in control when asked if she's amazed at how quickly success has come.
"No, not really," she said. "I mean, I expect myself to achieve my goals, and my goals are pretty high this year. But I knew I had to play good golf. And, you know, I'm never really satisfied unless I achieve what I set out to do."
Creamer's confidence, coupled with her youthful enthusiasm, got her plenty of attention three weeks ago. She had just finished second to Kerr at the Wendy's Championship for Children in Ohio - and made history in the process. Creamer had collected enough points in just six months to earn one of 10 automatic berths to the 12-woman U.S. Solheim squad, becoming the youngest player and first LPGA Tour rookie to earn a spot on the team.
Standing with her teammates to meet the media, Creamer startled a few of the older team members when she was asked her thoughts on the Solheim competition with the Europeans.
"All I can say is that they better get ready, because they're going to get beat," she said. "I'm laying it down. I'm very confident and I know we have a good team and the best captain anyone can have."
But the moment ultimately caused more smiles than winces, among both the U.S. and European players. They saw the brash talk not as trash talk but as an exuberant outburst from a teen living a dream.
"If people just knew how important this was for Paula; it was everything to her to be there and the enthusiasm just bubbled out," said her mother, who was in the media tent at the time. "She was ready to play right then, I think."
When she did get to play, Creamer backed up her words, teaming with fellow top rookies Natalie Gulbis, 22, and Christina Kim, 21, to account for eight of the U.S. team's 151/2 points. On the final day of competition, Creamer was at her best against Davies, making seven birdies to set a Cup record in a singles match and posting a record front-nine score of 30.
"Paula Creamer is a superstar," captain Nancy Lopez said. "She's a great player. She's enthusiastic, can't wait to play, not afraid of anything, not intimidated by anyone. Her mom and dad traveling with her, I think, is great. ... (They) have definitely added stability to her and have helped her go out on the golf course and only worry about golf. I think that's enabled her to be the great player that she is."
Creamer's story is indeed a family matter. She took up golf at age 10 in northern California, and enjoyed it enough to forget about becoming a cheerleader at 12. She dominated as a junior player but wanted to improve her game. So she read about the Leadbetter Academy and coaxed her parents into flying with her to Bradenton to check out the place.
She worked with Whelan and knew she wanted to move. "Everything I wanted was all here," she said. "It was perfect for me."
Her parents liked what they saw, too, and in 2000 the family made the big move with their only child. Creamer, then 14, had to leave behind her middle school friends, but she was ready to get serious.
"When we started, everybody said, "Oh, you've got to work with this girl; she's such a great prospect,' " Whelan recalls. "And when I watched her hit the ball, I thought, well, she must be a very determined and a great competitor, because she didn't particularly swing the club that well. But she could hit it straight."
So Whelan set goals for raising the technical side of her game to the level of her mental toughness. He saw quickly how much she thrived on pressure situations. "When she's on the golf course and things are not going well, she's always looking to draw on things to motivate her," he said.
Her mother echoes that.
"Handling pressure is probably one of her greatest strengths," she said. "A lot of players have great games, but Paula loves the competition aspect, too. She thrives on it."
The Creamers have always made a habit of traveling to tournaments together. Paul Creamer, a pilot for American Airlines, was able to shift his base from San Francisco to Miami and arrange his flight schedule so he could often go with his family to events. Karen Creamer never missed a trip, as her daughter became the top junior in the country in 2003.
"They've been the best parents in the world," Creamer said. "I mean, they have given up everything for me. Moving across the country just for my golf. I couldn't have done this without them."
They give her space to do her own things. Often, that means shopping for clothes, shoes and purses - as well as getting stopped increasingly for autographs and snapshots. "It's fun, l like it," she said.
She also likes teen-oriented TV shows and owns both seasons of the OC and Newlyweds on DVD, so she can watch when her hectic schedule prevents her from catching the shows on the air.
And then there's the color pink.
Her friends have nicknamed her the Pink Panther because of all the items she owns in that color: ribbons for her hair, shirts, shoes, hats, golf tees, spikes, and the pink lemonade she drinks at tournaments. "Even if I'm just going to the mall, I have something pink on," she said.
She hates sitting still and seems to have no trouble separating from golf when she's away from the course. "She's always been able to turn off the golf part," her mother said. "When we're not on the course, we don't even talk about it. That's how she wants it. She sleeps great and doesn't fret over disappointments. That would have been one of my big concerns. But she's able to just let go and move on."
Not that there have been many disappointments lately. Still, despite Creamer's strong short game and potent driving, Whelan said there is important work to do as they look toward her second pro season.
"For me, she still needs to drive the ball a little more if she's going to get where Annika got," he said. "And she needs to be a little sharper around the greens. That's where we're going to concentrate."
Creamer said she wants to attend college at some point. She had narrowed her choices to Stanford and Oklahoma State, in case she hadn't qualified for the pro tour. And her parents actually thought they would move back to their house in California once their daughter started college this fall. Scratch that.
Next on Creamer's checklist of goals: win a major. And in the coming five years?
"To be the No. 1 player in the world, definitely," she said.
That's not a prediction. It's simply the youthful confidence of someone who's pretty in pink and, judging from her first pro season, pretty amazing.