Wait is over for Paula Creamer
Paula Creamer was defeated soundly by 17-year-old Charley Hull on a terrible final day of the Solheim Cup for the U.S. team last August. And then, the bubbly teen from England asked Creamer for her autograph. A friend back home had begged Hull to get the scribble, because Creamer was one of his favorite players.
Creamer good-naturedly signed and chuckled about it later. But you couldn't help but think of the contrast. Hull was just getting started in this crazy, globe-trotting game of pro golf. Creamer, who had turned 27 earlier in August, had once been a teen phenom, too. Now here she was getting beaten by a kid who wanted her autograph.
Fast-forward to Sunday in Singapore, after a tense round of Creamer grinding her way into an improbable playoff. As her winning eagle putt snaked to the hole, all the world's Creamer fans -- likely including Hull's pal -- were hoping it was finally time for the golf gods to pay back the Pink Panther with a good break.
And wow, what a break it was.
Creamer's 75-foot, down-the-shelf, breaking-left putt gave her the victory in the HSBC Women's Champions tournament. Any player on any tour winning a title with that kind of putt in a playoff would be news. Any title by Creamer -- undeniably one of the LPGA's "it girls" since she's been on tour -- would also be news.
That it was Creamer who won so dramatically? After a drought of three-plus years? About the only way it could have been better is if it had happened in the United States. But the native Californian probably wouldn't have minded if this had come on another planet.
Her last victory had been a huge one: The 2010 U.S. Women's Open. Winning her country's national championship had been one of Creamer's biggest career goals, and she did it at age 23. But it happened while she was still nursing a thumb injury from 2009. She played well enough to win that major title, but the next few years would bring pain, disappointments and a few doubters. Actually, maybe more than a few.
"You can't control anybody else, but I wasn't living up to my own expectations," Creamer said in the news conference after her victory Sunday. "Not what everybody else said, not what people thought I should do. I just wasn't living up to my own.
"I was enjoying what I was doing, but I wasn't loving it. My thumb hurt. My arm hurt. My expectations were way too high. I got in my own way for a little bit."
Even so, Creamer remained one of the tour's most popular players. In September 2012, it looked as if she was going to get back in the victory circle. But a three-putt on the final hole of regulation put her into a playoff with South Korea's Jiyai Shin at the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia.
They then stayed tied through eight playoff holes, playing No. 18 over and over. Darkness set in, and the two had to come back the next morning to decide the title. Another three-putt -- on the ninth playoff hole -- sank Creamer.
Still, in the 2011, '12 and '13 LPGA seasons, Creamer had a combined 23 top-10 finishes, placing as high as runner-up each year. She played in the Solheim Cup twice in that stretch, too.
But the question she couldn't avoid -- sitting on nine career LPGA victories -- was, "When will you win again?"
Late into Sunday's round in Singapore -- which was Saturday night in the United States -- it didn't look as if it was in the cards for Creamer this time, either. Australian Hall of Famer Karrie Webb, who won earlier this season in her home country, seemed in control heading into the back nine.
Then, Webb bogeyed No. 13 on one of those maddening putts where the ball horseshoes the hole. Even as experienced as Webb is, that seemed to rattle her. She bogeyed two more holes and seemed dazed as she walked off No. 18 a shot behind Creamer. The American had started the day four shots behind Webb.
Then, it was up to Spain's Azahara Munoz to try to prolong Creamer's wait for a win. She had birdies on Nos. 14 and 17 and parred 18 to also finish 10 under and force a playoff with Creamer.
Munoz is a year younger than Creamer, and she was seeking her second LPGA victory. Both players birdied the par-5 18th on the first playoff hole. Then Creamer was left looking at the 75-footer.
Her longtime caddie and friend, Colin Cann, held the flagstick. You could almost hear his voice in Creamer's head: Just get it close, then get your birdie, and try this again.
Get it close.
Even the best players will tell you some luck factors in when you're putting from this distance. Of course, they practice thousands of putts from every distance and with all kinds of breaks. But to get a putt like this just right from so far away? Skill has to get a boost from good fortune.
And in this, Creamer was due. The ball took its hard left and went straight into the hole. Creamer's euphoric reaction reflected some of the strain she's felt in not winning, but also the joy she seems to have now outside of golf. She got engaged in December, and has talked about how positive she feels about life overall.
What if that amazing putt had not dropped? What if the playoff had gone on, and Creamer had lost another heartbreaker?
It would have been difficult for her, no doubt. But she would have soldiered on. She has been knocking on the door. She tied for third in both the 2014 season-opening event in the Bahamas in January, and in Australia in mid-February.
Now she and the rest of the tour will prepare for this year's first tournament on U.S. soil: the LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix, March 20-23. That's followed by two events in Creamer's home state, with the Kia Classic in Carlsbad, Calif., and the Kraft Nabisco Championship -- the season's first of five majors -- in Rancho Mirage.
Creamer will be able to go back home without that question hanging over her. She's won again. And the odds probably are that it won't be another three years before she does it again.