By Ron Kroichick
To watch Paula Creamer today is to see a poised, polished professional athlete. She sends golf balls soaring down the fairway as effortlessly as she mingles with young, pink-clad, autograph-seeking fans. Plop her into a television commercial with veteran Nick Price, and Creamer doesn’t flinch; she flashes her magnetic smile and trades clever lines with Price, right down to the moment he crows about his induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2003. Then she announces, with the proper dose of attitude, “In 2003, I was in high school.” Oh, yeah: She’s that young.
For all her accolades, five worldwide pro victories and more than $3 million in earnings, Creamer only turned 21 this August. She’s not so very far removed from her days as a pesky, high-powered kid in Pleasanton, where she played hide-and-seek in the clubhouse at Castlewood Country Club and jokingly began golf lessons with head pro Larry O’Leary by asking, “You want me to warm up?” before performing a string of cartwheels.
Eleven years ago, Creamer picked up a club for the first time. Seven years ago, she convinced her parents to move across the country so she could attend a prestigious golf academy. Two years ago, she became the youngest winner of a multi-round event in the history of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), the springboard for a memorable rookie season in which Creamer finished second on the money list, behind only Annika Sorenstam.
Now, Creamer eagerly returns to the East Bay for October’s Longs Drugs Challenge in Danville, just a short drive up I-680 from her childhood home. The event does more than give her a chance to play before family and friends. It also highlights the present-day prestige of a onetime competitive dancer, who changed venues, climbed out of a crowded, hyper-motivated pack, and quickly blossomed into one of the best female golfers in the world.
How did she do it?
Paula Creamer grew up as the only child of athletic parents—father Paul was a swimmer at the Naval Academy before becoming a pilot for American Airlines, and mother Karen was an avid tennis player. Young Paula was exposed to a smorgasbord of sports. She played tennis, soccer, and softball, she swam, and she participated in gymnastics and acrobatic dance. But none of these challenges was quite enough to absorb her irrepressible energy. Paula and best friend Kelsy Martin, whom she met in third grade at Valley View Elementary, endlessly chased the Creamers’ golden retriever in her backyard or charged around the neighborhood driving a golf cart. They weren’t kids who sat around watching television.
The Creamers also happened to live alongside the No. 1 green on the Hill Course at Castlewood, where Paul played golf as often as five times a week. Though he always encouraged Paula to join him, she showed no interest until one day, at age 10, she asked to come along to the practice range. Paula quickly took to the game. Golf appealed to her on many levels. She loved being outside, and she loved the solitary challenge—being judged only by the scorecard (not those annoyingly unpredictable dance judges) and having to summon both physical and mental skills to navigate different courses in different conditions. “You can never have the same day, the same round,” she says. It helped that she had success early, satisfying her competitive side.
Golf also provided a way to spend time with her father. “I always used to say my dad wasn’t going to set my hair in curlers,” Creamer says, “so it was something we could do together.”
Karen Creamer says golf helped center Paula, calm her down. Mustering the discipline to learn the game—she started with one group lesson and one private lesson each week—helped channel her abundant energy. Also working to her advantage was Castlewood’s history of developing junior players. LPGA players Pat Hurst and Dana Dormann came out of the club’s junior program, as did Todd Fischer and Joel Kribel, both of whom have played on the PGA Tour.
O’Leary remembers Creamer as uncommonly mature for a 10-year-old, and a natural athlete—always tall for her age—who liked to joke around. But she didn’t hide her fiery streak when golf balls sailed in unintended directions. “If we weren’t having a good session, you could tell she wasn’t happy just by looking at her,” says O’Leary, who now teaches at the Pleasanton Golf Center. “She really wanted to learn.”
Paula’s ambition became even clearer when O’Leary left Castlewood in 1997 and Paul Creamer began to interview potential replacements to teach Paula. Assistant pro Jonathan Hughes, who got the job, found an interview with the father of an 11-year-old a bit odd. But, he observed, it also was unusual for a kid that age to take meticulous notes during every lesson, as she did.
It’s always wise to be wary of heavy parental involvement in youth sports, but, by all accounts, Paula developed her own version of her dad’s discipline and intensity. She acknowledges she’s like him in many respects—competitive, hard on herself, stubborn. She describes her mom as having a “quirky and fun” side that keeps both Paul and Paula loose.
Emboldened by rapid improvement, young Paula took a full-on dive into golf. She took more lessons, gave up dancing at 12, and regularly had nighttime chipping and putting sessions under her dad’s watchful eye. If an event precluded her from practicing at Castlewood, Paul took her to Poppy Ridge in Livermore. Creamer also began traveling to tournaments, which meant sacrificing time with her friends. She accepted the trade-off. Her friends, however, didn’t always understand why she couldn’t join them for Friday-night sleepovers.
“I kind of resented it because it took up so much of her time,” says Martin, now a senior at Chico State and still one of Creamer’s closest friends. “I wasn’t into golf, so I didn’t get it. It took me a while to understand her dedication.”
That dedication begins to explain Creamer’s rapid rise to stardom. And her attachment to the game traces to the way she learned at Castlewood—from teachers who kept the process fun. They mixed instruction with playful motivation; O’Leary gave his student a Certs mint every time she hit a shot well during a practice session.
“It was always structured, but not an intense-enough structure where you turn kids off,” O’Leary says. “You can’t make it seem like work.” Or, as Paul Creamer says, “She always had coaches who were not just good technically but also had a passion for working with kids.”
Paula’s forays onto the course with Dana Dormann and Jean Zedlitz, another LPGA player, also helped. Dormann and Zedlitz occasionally played late-afternoon rounds at Castlewood, and they frequently found Creamer ready to tag along, peppering them with questions about life on tour. They knew she was a special talent—at 12, she once out-drove Dormann—and clearly was more serious about the game than other kids her age. But the education went beyond the game’s mechanics.
“I learned how to be mature on a golf course,” Creamer says. “They’re not going to want to play with a 12-year-old who can’t handle her emotions. That’s such a big part of the game.”
Before long, Creamer’s parents were spending their weekends shepherding her to junior tournaments. Hughes, the coach, started to feel convinced that Creamer had a future in the game. She would return from tournaments and nonchalantly tell him she “won by eight, won by 10.” Competition motivated her. She needed challenge, and found performing in front of people exhilarating—a quality Karen Creamer credits to her daughter’s dance days, when she learned not to fear but to enjoy being watched.
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As Creamer grew, she did extraordinarily well, winning several tournaments in Northern California and, eventually, 11 American Junior Golf Association events. Golf took her to Texas, New York, Oregon, pretty much everywhere—including the west coast of Florida.
It was during the autumn of 1999 that Creamer first heard about the David Leadbetter Golf Academy. She and her dad poked around the Internet and became intrigued by the academy established by Leadbetter, an Australian widely recognized as one of the world’s top instructors, under the auspices of the powerful International Management Group. IMG’s compound in Bradenton, Florida, has served as a stage for top young athletes in several sports, including Venus and Serena Williams in tennis and Freddy Adu in soccer. Creamer and her parents visited in February 2000, expecting to learn a few things and enjoy a brief family vacation. Seven months later, when Paula was 14, they moved to Florida.
Paul could see the look in his daughter’s eyes the moment they set foot inside the academy. She wanted to become the top player in the world, and this place was geared toward that dream with its accomplished coaches, state-of-the-art training facilities, and a private high school—all in one shoot-for-the-stars location.
“It’s one of those places that makes you want to practice and get better,” Creamer says. “It was just an athlete’s paradise.”
Paul transferred his American Airlines base from San Francisco to Miami, but he and Karen anticipated staying in Florida less than a year and didn’t, at first, sell their house at Castlewood, figuring that Paula would miss her friends and they would return to the Bay Area. But Paula never looked back. She told her parents, “My really good friends will stay really good friends,” and quickly embraced her new life.
State-of-the-art comes at a steep cost, of course. Tuition at the Leadbetter Academy runs $36,100 for the 2007–08 school year. The Creamers could not have stayed in Florida unless the academy offered Paula a full scholarship, as it did after her first year. Paul’s job with American allowed the Creamers to fly standby when they traveled to tournaments around the country.
There were still naysayers back home in Pleasanton, other parents who questioned the wisdom of uprooting a family and spending so much money with no assurance of future success. But Creamer thrived in her new environment. Her daily schedule was highly structured: conditioning in the early morning, school from 7:30 to noon, golf practice until 5:30, school again in the evening. She was always kept busy, a perfect match for her high-energy temperament.
Creamer kept doing well in junior tournaments—she was a four-time AJGA All-American and the association’s player of the year in 2003—and it became obvious she would earn a college scholarship. Attending college was always the plan. Most members of Creamer’s extended family had degrees, she maintained good grades through high school, and she figured playing on an elite Division I team would prepare her for the pros. Stanford, Oklahoma State, and Duke were on her short list. But after wrestling with the decision for several months, she chose to turn professional in 2005, at 18, largely because she had played well in seven LPGA appearances as an amateur the year before (including one tie for second).
Now, less than three years later, it is difficult to question the choice. Creamer made an instant splash as a pro, planting herself at the forefront of the fresh wave of young stars energizing the women’s game. She won the Sybase Classic in May ’05, four days before she graduated from high school. Two months later, she won the Evian Masters in France by eight shots. Off she went, zooming into another realm.
Her rookie year was a whirlwind. She won more than $1.5 million and abruptly emerged as a challenger to Sorenstam’s throne, a magnet for endorsements, and a favorite of kids. The smashing debut also raised expectations. Creamer’s second season, when she nursed a nagging wrist injury and went winless, left her disappointed. She appears to have bounced back this year—she won the season-opening tournament in Hawaii and had seven other top-10 finishes through August 15. Still, she yearns to conquer her tendency to fade during final rounds in major championships, as she is fully aware that golfers are ultimately judged on how they play in majors.
Fame and riches aside, there are days when Creamer wakes up and thinks she’s sick of golf. Twenty minutes later, she tells herself, “Are you crazy? You can’t live without it.” In retrospect, Paul Creamer considers it a blessing that Paula did not start playing the game until she was 10. That counts as late in the modern sports world, but it might help in the long run.
“I think I have a good balance,” Creamer says. “You have to know when it’s golf time and when it’s time to enjoy something else.”
Creamer stands 5-foot-9 with long, flowing hair and that sparkling smile, but she doesn’t pose for provocative calendars (that would be Natalie Gulbis). Her three official LPGA Tour victories pale next to the active leader’s (Sorenstam’s) 69. She played for the United States in the Solheim Cup two years ago, but she’s not the tour’s shining example of national patriotism (Mexico’s Lorena Ochoa).
Her niche? Think pink.
Creamer’s open fixation with pink turned into a fabulous marketing tool. Pink always was her favorite color, but it also became her identity on a crowded sports landscape, giving her a catchy, familiar nickname—Pink Panther—legitimized by her success on the course. LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens also finds a strong statement in Creamer’s perpetually pink garb.
“She’s proved you can be a girl’s girl and also a world-class athlete—they’re not mutually exclusive,” Bivens says. “That’s an extremely important message to send.” Or, as Creamer says, “I’m very much a tomboy, but I’m also a girlie girl. I love sports, but at the end of the day, when I’m not hitting a golf ball, I’m in a dress and heels. There’s the other girlie side, getting my hair done, wearing nice clothes.”
Bivens raves about Creamer’s “substantive” impact on the tour and the way she patterns her interaction with fans after golf icons Arnold Palmer and Nancy Lopez. One recent example: At this June’s U.S. Women’s Open in North Carolina, five girls from Texas who were playing in a nearby junior tournament showed up at the U.S. Open course wearing pink and purple tie-dye shirts reading, “We love Paula.” Creamer spotted them on the No. 2 green and walked over to introduce herself.
She clearly has a soft spot for kids, including those enrolled in the First Tee program of Sarasota/Manatee (Florida). The First Tee is a program designed to teach kids life skills through golf, and Creamer surprised program director Mary Ann Andrews last year by donating 40 one-week scholarships to the Leadbetter/IMG summer camp, plus two year-round scholarships at the golf academy. Andrews says the program’s heavy female enrollment—about 40 percent, roughly double the national average—stems from Creamer’s influence.
“She’s inspiring the next generation of girls to come out and pursue golf more seriously,” says Dormann, who teamed with Creamer at a clinic in Pleasanton before last year’s Longs Drugs tournament. “A lot of girls definitely look to her as a role model.”
Published: Diablo, September 2007
Author bio: Ron Kroichick covers golf for the San Francisco Chronicle.