GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) Paula Creamer badly wants to give a thumbs-up at the end of this weekend's ShopRite LPGA Classic.
It's been a while since the 23-year-old LPGA Tour star has been able to use her left thumb for anything, let alone gripping a golf club.
Wednesday's pro-am round marked just the second time Creamer has played 18 holes since undergoing surgery in Birmingham, Ala., on March 30.
"It feels good," Creamer said after her round on Seaview's picturesque Bay Course. "My thumb won't be completely healed for quite a long time, but it's progress. There was a point when I honestly didn't know if I was ever going to be able to play golf again."
She reached that point during the first event of the season, the Honda PTT tournament in Thailand. Creamer, who had first hurt her hand last year, was actually playing well despite the discomfort. Through 15 holes, she was 5-under par.
On the 16th hole, her pain turned to agony.
"I swung the club and felt it pop or tear or something," Creamer said. "I just immediately went down on the ground and started to cry and I played the last three holes in tears."
She initially opted against surgery, however. She saw three hand specialists and various physical therapists in search of treatment and/or a brace that would permit her to play golf without an operation.
One of her quests landed her at the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla. She visited with the Phillies' medical staff and spent some time hitting golf balls over the fence at Bright House Field with an 8-iron.
"The trainer I work out with knows the Phillies," said Creamer, who is nicknamed "Pink Panther" for her fondness for the color. I actually threw out the first pitch (at a Phillies game last summer), so we kind of have that bonding.
"I hit some pink balls out on the field, which was pretty cool. The (grounds crew) was watching me take divots and they were running over and putting sand in them. It was the first time they said anybody's ever hit a golf ball off their field, so it was pretty neat."
A few weeks later, she was feeling blue.
Just like the Phillies' Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and company, Creamer went into a hitting slump. Treatments, therapy and a cast failed to help alleviate the pain she felt whenever she tried to swing. The turning point came while she was attending the Tavistock Cup, the annual competition between residents of Lake Nona and Islesworth golf communities in Orlando, Fla.
"I was holding the Tavistock plate and I just watched it fall out of my hand," said Creamer, who lives in Islesworth. "I had the operation a couple of days later."
Dr. Thomas Hunt repaired stretched ligaments and a "hyperextension of the metacarpal phalangeal joint," according to Creamer's management team, IMG.
This weekend's ShopRite Classic, which is back after a three-year hiatus, will give Creamer a chance to recapture some of the magic she first displayed at the same tournament in 2004. Then 17, she finished tied for second behind Cristie Kerr, barely missing a chance to become the youngest-ever winner of an LPGA tournament and the first amateur champion since 1969.
"It's been a crazy couple of months for myself, but I'm glad to be back," the eight-time LPGA Tour winner with nearly $7 million in career earnings said Wednesday. "My goals are just to really enjoy myself. I've been sitting out for so long it made me realize how much I truly love the game and how much I missed it."
The 54-hole event starts Friday.