Given that the whole globe just watched the World Cup – and given that America won’t pay any attention to soccer until 2014 – let’s give the Beautiful Game one last tribute and phrase Paula Creamer’s win in the U.S. Women’s Open at legendary Oakmont in “football” terms:
This was a deserved result.
In soccer sometimes, two teams will scrap for 90 minutes; one team can dominate, and the weaker side can win, 1-0, on a bad bounce.
“Oh, it wasn’t the result they deserved,” the broadcaster says (preferably in a British accent, to gain credibility).
Most Americans have trouble with that concept. Deserve? In our sports, you get what you deserve: Your starting pitcher gives up four homers in the first two innings? You deserve the ‘L,' buddy. Your defense allows 600 yards of total offense? That’s a losing locker room, pal. Your point guard turns it over six times in the fourth quarter? Loser City – deserved.
Paula Creamer’s career to this point, however, had been like a soccer match with the wrong result.
She had done it all but win a major. She’d won eight times, as much as any player on the LPGA Tour without a major. She’d been a Solheim Cup warrior, never losing a singles match. (In fact, Team USA had Creamer bat in the Pete Rose leadoff spot in last year’s Sunday singles, to set the tone with a breakfast thrashing of Suzann Pettersen.) She’d played her teenage golf in the Age of Michelle Wie Hype, and outdone Wie at every turn on the golf course.
No “60 Minutes” feature or magazine covers for Creamer: just the respect of everyone in the women’s golf scene as a world-class player.
Moreover, she’d put herself in position to win the 2008 and 2009 U.S. Women’s Opens, but been dealt cruel blows of fate when her nerves deserted her.
And then, her body betrayed her.
A left thumb injury killed off her ’09 season and required surgery that put her out of golf for four months. She wondered if she’d ever play again.
Flash-forward to 72 holes at unrelenting Oakmont ending on Sunday.
There, on one of golf’s most grueling stages, the golf gods finally told Creamer: It’s your time, sister.
It was as if the fates were waiting for Creamer to do it in the best of all possible ways to pay tribute to her talent: Coming back from injury … at a brutal yard of golf … playing 23 holes on the Sunday after weather delays … still playing hurt, with a thumb estimated at 60 percent strength … playing in the last group, where the pressure is exponential … and finishing as the only woman under par with a convincing 4-shot win as national champion.
Best of all, the particulars of her golf were virtuoso.
At a championship where driving the golf ball is premium, she hit 24 of her last 28 fairways. On greens like car hoods, she made sizable par saves on the 6th and 8th holes to preserve her lead. And when it came time where the golf wasn’t as important as the heart, she bounced back from a bogey on 12 with stiffed approach shots on 14 and 15 for back-to-back birdies, the sort of stuff that comes from an indefinable place in the golfing soul: steel, mettle, moxie, whatever you want to call it.
Creamer has always had it, in spades. Even though she came from loving parents who never forced the athletic spotlight on her, Creamer draws on a natural wellspring of desire and hunger, the kind of thing you can’t coach on a driving range.
Full disclosure: Paula was born and raised in Pleasanton, Calif., a suburb about 35 minutes east of San Francisco. In my job as the golf writer at the San Francisco Chronicle, I was first alerted to Creamer’s talents when she was just 14 years old. By the time I saw her play at the 2003 Pumpkin Ridge U.S. Women’s Open – what up, Hilary Lunke! – I was observing a young woman who was none too pleased that our paper, and every paper like ours, was more fascinated by a 13-year-old Hawaiian than Creamer, who was actually the No. 1-rated junior girls player in America.
The Creamer camp never made it an issue, nor did they ever engage in any back-biting, but some things you just know: Paula Creamer burned to be known as the better player than the more famous Wie. In one of my dispatches, after the 2004 U.S. Women’s Open at The Orchards – what up, Meg Mallon! – I wrote after Wie and Creamer tied for low-amateur honors: “We’ll have the next decade to figure out which star will burn brighter.”
If you’re looking for numbers, we’re at:
Paula Creamer: 9 wins, 1 major.
Michelle Wie: 1 win, 0 majors.
I’m sure the women would object to me even bringing this up. They’re friends now. In fact, they became friendly even way back in 2004, as Curtis Cup teammates. (Where, by the way, Creamer went 2-0 in singles.)
Point is, where sometimes we in the sports media fall for sizzle over steak, Creamer’s career has always been substantive. This win at Oakmont proves as much, and doesn’t surprise. In fact, it’s welcome.
The women’s golf landscape right now is a little like Eastern Europe, post-Berlin Wall. Back then, new nations were being formed, a few coups went down and the marketplace was wide open for the aggressive and ambitious. Likewise, in women’s golf, the post-Annika, post-Lorena world of women’s golf is still waiting to take shape.
So many of the signs point to an Asian domination, from Ai Miyazato’s multiple wins to Yani Tseng’s two majors to Jiyai Shin’s brief hold on the No. 1 ranking.
But now, in the last month, we’ve seen a blowout win for Cristie Kerr, and a U.S. Women’s Open for Creamer. This is huge for the LPGA. It’s wide open out there, and they’d like nothing more than to crank up Tom Petty’s “American Girl” as their theme song on the web site.
Paula Creamer is 23, and a national champ and, yes, pretty in pink. Sure, she has to make sure the thumb injury is treated well, and sure, she has to do this again and again – just as Annika did – but it was a damn good Sunday for American women’s golf and for Creamer.
It was more than that. It was well-deserved.
Scorecard of the week
60-62-66-70 – 26-under 258, Steve Stricker, winner, John Deere Classic, TPC Deere Run, Silva, Ill.
And in the “Phew!/Thank God/I Don’t Want to Think About the Alternative” category of the week, we congratulate Stricker on his two-shot win over Paul Goydos.
Once again, the topic of closing in golf sprang to the fore. In a year where Dustin Johnson, Robert Garrigus, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose have turned Saturday evening glory into Sunday afternoon bummers, Stricker had the unenviable – or is it? – task of protecting a 6-shot Saturday night lead.
You’d think it’s enviable. Spot a PGA Tour player six shots on the first tee against the field, and he’d have to pull a big-time choke job to not lock it down.
Uh-oh. I said it. The Johnny Miller word.
There are only a few times, it seems, when players with monster Saturday night leads seem to stretch them out, as I was just saying to my good friend, Greg Norman. Tiger Woods at the ’97 Masters and ’00 U.S. Open, Cristie Kerr two weeks ago, and Brian Gay last year at Hilton Head, come to mind.
Funny enough, they’re in the minority. Everybody else falls prey to an age-old disease: Being a member of homo sapiens.
Time between shots plays tricks on the mind. Mental strength wavers. Failure hovers, like a proctor walking the aisles at an SAT exam on a Saturday morning.
Next thing you know, you’re Steve Stricker and you’ve gone 1-over on holes 11 through 16 and you come to the 17th tee with only a 2-shot lead, swallowing hard after your tee shot finds the trees. Swallowing, that is, if you can find the saliva.
But Stricker, regaining his form from earlier this year when he was fondly dubbed “The Cheesehead Assassin” in this column space (before a shoulder injury sidelined him), made birdie from the trees and locked down his second win of the year.
That’s called digging deep. That’s also called avoiding a total meltdown, and for that, Stricks, you get Scorecard of the Week honors. Have yourself a Miller Lite on the flight to St. Andrews to celebrate.
Broadcast moment of the week
“Folks, if you want to find out if you are a g-o-l-f-e-r, or a p-l-a-y-e-r, this is the place to try.” – Johnny Miller, NBC, on Oakmont G.C.
Say, Johnny: did you shoot 63 there once? Nobody had mentioned …
I kid, I kid. Miller is the best in the business, and it’s tough to knock him, but I’ll credit golf scribe Geoff Shackelford with suggesting on his web site a drinking game of Miller and mentions of the 63 at Oakmont.
Warning: you may end up as buzzed as a soccer fan from Spain.
Mulligan of the week
Creamer’s national championship was dynamite playing and all, but it lacked one thing: 72nd hole drama. Her 3-shot 54-hole lead essentially stayed as such most of the day, and ended as a 4-shot win.
There was a point, however, where it could have been a smidge closer and, setting aside Creamer’s heart rate, we all could have benefitted as couch potatoes.
Creamer had just bogeyed 12 to get to 1-under for the tournament, and Brittany Lang, the Duke Blue Devil who has yet to win on the LPGA Tour, had a chance to make it a 2-shot ballgame.
Lang was in the 15th fairway. Granted, she had 190 to the front and 198 to the hole, but NBC’s Kay Cockerill astutely noted that Lang only needed a 180-185 shot to let her ball travel to the green.
If Lang executed, she could make par, and walk to 16 tee only two shots back.
Alas, Lang both over-clubbed and pulled it – dumping her second in the bunker and making bogey. Creamer’s lead was back to three, and the championship would effectively be sealed from there.
So, for the sake of a little Sunday afternoon drama, let’s go back to that 15th fairway at Oakmont, put Lang 198 out and … give that young lady a mulligan!
Where do we go from here?
Wake up, ghost of Old Tom Morris. Whisky distillers, increase they production. Haggis-makers, start your sheep’s hearts … and livers … and lungs …
It’s the Open Championship (or British Open, for us Yanks) at The Old Course at St. Andrews, and that means all the attendant pleasures: A stable of British golfers aiming to drink from the Claret Jug (Westwood, Poulter, Casey, Donald); a young lad from Northern Ireland looking to make his case (McIlroy); an American Masters champion who plays like a 15-handicap chop overseas stumbling on to the scene (welcome, Lefty) and the two-time defending Old Course champion and world’s top-ranked player being asked by British tabloids: “Tiger, have you shagged the farmer’s daughter yet?”
I’ve said for weeks Tiger would win the British, because it’s St. Andrews, and because it’s time, and because he’s Tiger, but his form of late has made such a prediction laughable.