Creamer rising to the top

"Sorry I'm late," she proclaims, bounding through the door of her family's first-floor condominium. Forget that Paula Creamer is an 18-year-old. She is usually pretty punctual, and on afternoons when their only child works out with trainer David Donatucci, Paul and Karen Creamer typically find her home around 4 o'clock. Yet on this October day it is almost 5, which likely means one thing.

Paula found herself another pigeon.

"Yeah, one of the other trainers wanted to have a putting contest," she says, ducking into the kitchen to grab a bottle of water. A precocious smirk surfaces, divulging the outcome. Poor guy didn't have a chance.

Of course you'd think by now, after seeing Creamer soak up everything the David Leadbetter Golf Academy has to offer since begging her folks to leave their home in Pleasanton, Calif., and move to Bradenton, Fla., more than four years ago -- taking counsel from swing instructors, sport psychologists, media coaches and the like to become one of the country's top amateur golfers -- that the academy staff would have figured it out. Don't be fooled by the brown hair and puppy-dog eyes. Don't become distracted by the shiny earrings, manicured nails and affinity for all things pink (clothes, putter grip, even wedges with the words "pink panther" etched on them). As sweet and harmless and girly as Paula Creamer appears, there is nothing she'd like more than to leave you crying uncle.

"It's what I've been telling you all along," says Paul to the visitor in the living room waiting on Paula's return. "She's competitive to the hilt, been like that since she was little. It's not mean-spirited ... it's just at times it's like there are two Paulas. She's never been satisfied just doing something. She wants to do it better than anyone else."

To prove his point, Dad indulges in a story. A few years ago, he and his daughter visited the academy's driving range during a classic Florida downpour. Not long before, Paula had played in a U.S. Women's Open qualifier and on one hole found her ball partially submerged in a water hazard. Caddieing at the time, Paul asked if she wanted to hit it out, but Paula said no because she had never tried that type shot before. So the pair spent a rainy afternoon searching for puddles to hit balls from. "By the end of the day she was covered in mud," Paul says, "but she knew how to hit the shot."

Maybe, then, what transpired this past summer shouldn't be so surprising. There was Creamer, all giggles and grins at getting to play with the grown-ups in seven LPGA events, yet never once displaying a hint of anxiety, making all seven cuts and posting five top-20 finishes. Particularly impressive was the red graffiti she left on leader boards during a four-week stretch when she placed T-2 at the ShopRite LPGA Classic (just missing a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole with the chance to be the first amateur to win since 1969 in the balance), 13th at the Wegmans Rochester LPGA, T-13 at the U.S. Women's Open (earning a spot in the field at Cherry Hills in 2005) and T-18 at the Canadian Women's Open.

Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us five times -- well, hang on while we buckle our seatbelts. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't think Creamer will walk away with an LPGA Tour card next week when she tees it up at the final stage of qualifying school in Daytona Beach, Fla. (In a dress rehearsal three weeks ago at Futures Tour Q school, she shared medalist honors and has added veteran caddie Colin Cann for the 72-hole march at LPGA International). Card or no card, she's almost certain to turn pro soon after, roughly the same time she graduates from high school a semester ahead of her class.

Just how good is Creamer? Good enough to have college coaches confessing to her while they'd love if she came to their campus next fall, skipping school is probably in her best interest. ("Never thought I'd believe a player's game could stagnate in college," notes one long-time coach, "but hers would.") Good enough to be in line for endorsement deals in the six-figure neighborhood, say reps from management firms who maintain automobile and financial-services companies, along with golf manufacturers, are showing interest.

Good enough, even, to make some forget about a certain other teen sensation with a habit of playing LPGA events. "She's been under the radar because of Michelle Wie, but I think people are starting to realize her potential," contends Leadbetter himself. "In some respects she's probably more ready [right now to play professionally]." ("We're good friends and have a lot of the same goals," says Creamer of her Curtis Cup teammate, before adding the possibility of an on-course rivalry down the road would be "pretty neat.")

The more interesting question -- and the one asked by casual fans and LPGA brass alike looking for the next great young American female golfer -- is this: How good can Creamer be? Here again people pull no punches. "She's the total package," says Linda Hampton, Wegmans tournament director the last 24 years. "Her personality, the way she already seems at ease with fans and sponsors, I see somebody who can be as much an entertainer and giver as Nancy [Lopez].

"She gets it, and she's only 18."

For someone who has played in almost two dozen tournaments or qualifiers (junior, amateur and pro) each of the last three years, Creamer is more a typical teenager than one might expect. She has been to two proms. She enjoys reality TV, "America's Next Top Model" her favorite show. She is at the Sarasota Square Mall enough that she could drive there with her eyes closed. (These days she's into purses.) And when her cell phone rings, it's likely her boyfriend of two years, Tarik Can, a freshman golfer at Texas whom she met at the academy and talks to several times a day.

"If they weren't both on Sprint," jokes Paul, "I'd be broke."

It's with typical teen angst, then, that Paula groans when seeing the photo album on the coffee table in the living room. "Do you really have to show those? They're so embarrassing."

Too late, however, as the volume thick with images from Paula's childhood already is telling a story. "When she was little she was an acrobatic dancer," says Karen, leafing through shots of her daughter in all variety of fancy get-ups and formal costumes. "She was on a team for about six years, and they would travel all over the country to different competitions."

Conspicuous by their absence are any pictures of a diaper-clad 2-year-old holding a golf club. Never mind that the Creamer's home in Pleasanton was hard by the first green of Castlewood CC, and Paula's father, a former Navy pilot who flies for American Airlines, had a single-digit handicap. It wasn't until she was 10 that she gave the sport a try and only then when a few dance friends asked if she had any interest in taking lessons with them. By the end of her first 45-minute session Paula was hooked, her competitive id finding refuge not in tap shoes but FootJoys. When those same friends were trying out for the sixth-grade cheerleading squad, she decided the only pom-pom in her future was the one on her head cover, and she chose to hang with the boys on the golf team instead.

"She was a pretty determined kid," recalls Dana Dormann, an LPGA pro at the time who practiced with fellow tour player Jean Zedlitz at Castlewood. "Around 4 in the afternoon we'd meet to go play, and all of a sudden Paula started showing up, too. Eventually we asked her if she wanted to join us. She took the initiative and made sure she was there."

Even with the club's notable list of homegrown talent -- alumni include Pat Hurst, Joel Kribel and Todd Fischer -- Creamer grabbed attention early, winning 13 straight Northern California junior events as a 12-year-old. As it turned out, the more people who watched, the better she played. Thanks to her dance days, she thought nothing about performing in front of 500 or 1,000 people.

While Mom and Dad encouraged Paula's new pursuit, it was daughter who approached them about taking it more seriously. Two visits to Bradenton in early 2000 made Paula even more insistent. "Everyone there accepted what I was trying to do," she explains. "It was a relief since back home [many school friends] couldn't understand why I was gone every weekend at another tournament." After getting approval from American to transfer from San Francisco to Miami, Paul kept their California home just in case but signed off on the family's move.

What the Leadbetter folks learned upon Creamer's arrival remains true today: The young woman possesses golf's equivalent of perfect pitch. "[Coming in] she didn't have this beautiful, technically correct golf swing," says David Whelan, Creamer's full-time instructor, a reference to an early turn that occasionally left the club behind her body, throwing off the sequence of her swing. "If you didn't know who she was, you'd probably walk right past her on the range. But ask her to try something new, and she can pick it up in five minutes and put it in play. She has an intuitiveness that's hard to describe and a work ethic that doesn't quit."

Says Creamer: "People tell me I like to have the last word in a conversation, and it's true. In elementary school I always wanted to be first in line going to recess. I've never been afraid to push myself. If I see something I want, there's no reason I can't get it. It might mean spending more time practicing, but so be it."

With guidance from Donatucci and Whelan, Creamer immersed herself in a workout program that strengthened her legs and core to generate power and create a foundation for a more versatile, repeatable swing, one that could work a fade just as easily as her natural draw. The results: 19 national junior wins, 2003 AJGA player of the year honors, a spot on the 2004 U.S. Curtis Cup team.
And a decision to make.

"As a father, it's your dream to see your child go to college and experience all it offers," says Paul, still coming to terms with the risk/reward shot Paula is about to play. "I felt like she'd be missing something [by not going], and at times I still do. But talking with Paula, I realized that was my dream. It wasn't necessarily hers."

"I believe the LPGA is where I belong," contends Paula, who plans to take college classes through the Internet and correspondence courses starting next year. "I think where I am with myself and my golf game, I can play out there and achieve my goals."

Thankfully, they're fairly modest. All that's needed for 2005 to be a success, she says, is "to make the Solheim Cup team."

Come to think of it, earning a spot on Nancy Lopez' squad bound for Crooked Stick next September might prove less daunting than some of the other lofty expectations Creamer seems destined to encounter sooner than later. With fortysomething stalwarts Beth Daniel, Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon and Rosie Jones winding down their careers, any number of "can't-miss" U.S. stars expected to fill the void -- including Wendy Ward, Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, Kelli Kuehne, Beth Bauer and Natalie Gulbis -- have struggled finding their way. Only two U.S. players under 30, Cristie Kerr and Christina Kim, won tour events in 2004. Amplified by the emergence of talented, young international players (Lorena Ochoa, Jennifer Rosales, Grace Park, Karen Stupples), the clamor for a youthful American idol to pull for, much less market and build a fan base around, is as urgent as it is grand. Enter Creamer stage right, attempting to grab the banner with both hands.

"I know that's going to be there, and I don't shy away from it," she says. "My expectations of myself are very high. I want to be a role model. What more could you hope for than to be in a position to help your sport grow?"

There is a bit of déjà vu in watching Creamer's emergence, admits Kerr. The 27-year-old has a unique perspective, having bypassed college herself eight years ago and been paired with Paula during the final day at ShopRite, holding her off with a birdie on the last hole to win by one. "The toughest thing is handling all there is outside the ropes," she says. "You don't appreciate the responsibilities. You think, 'If I can just focus on the golf, I'll be OK,' but it's not that easy."

Still, Creamer seemingly encountered much of what she's likely to face during her de facto internship this summer. At ShopRite she juggled media requests like a 15-year veteran while logging the same number of hours signing autographs as working on the practice range. At Wegmans she answered an 11th-hour request to give a keynote speech at a high school golf awards banquet.

"I don't know that the transition will be that hard," says LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin. "She looks like she enjoys playing and seems very comfortable out there. If she's grinding you can't tell. [Moreover] what she accomplished has earned the respect of many players already, so she's ahead of the game."

Ultimately, the greater issue will be dealing with the background noise surrounding her debut. No doubt there will be those who'll start to chirp if her sometimes balky putter gets her off to a slow start or somehow causes her to stumble at Q school. (In that case, Creamer says she'd use her six sponsor exemptions and her spot in the Women's Open in 2005 to try earning enough money to get her card, supplementing her schedule with starts on the Futures and European tours.)

"That's where we come in," says Whelan, of Creamer's support group, one that will include Mom traveling with her full time. "We can be realistic about analyzing her performance and doing what's needed to keep moving forward." Already, Whelan and Creamer have adjusted to the demands of tour events, arriving 20 to 30 minutes earlier than at amateur events to get in the prerequisite work without shirking other duties.

Make no mistake, there is excitement in Creamer's voice as she talks about the coming weeks and months, the future no longer a vague date on the calendar. "It's why I've done everything I've done the last few years," she says, the precocious smile returning. "I'm looking forward to getting started."

As she sits in her living room, still sweet and harmless and girly, you can't help but wonder, however, if Paula Creamer is ready to pull back the curtain and traverse the road ahead. Only at that point, as you stop to think for a second, do you realize what's starting to happen, and how you promised yourself you weren't going to become the next pigeon.

Subscribe to:

Golf Digest