Oakmont, Pa. She didn't look like any Pink Panther, not with a bag of ice taped around her left thumb and not while wearing a standard white shirt instead of one of her pink outfits. It was a sizzling 95 degrees in the shade Thursday at Oakmont and, oh yeah, there's hardly any shade to be had here since the successful tree-removal program.
So it was a good day to wear white, not pink, just like it was a good day for America's great pink hope, Paula Creamer. She's got popular U.S. Women's Open champion written all over her. She's a finesse and precision player and a good putter. Her game is styled for the demands of the Open. That's why it is no coincidence that she's finished among the top 20 in the last six Opens, and sixth in the last two.
Creamer will get her Open one day, barring injury, and cement her place as America's sweetheart. This week, she could be America's pink Cinderella story. Creamer finished bogey-bogey to shoot 72, 1 over par, a score that would be twice as impressive if only you could see how doinky-doink hard Oakmont's greens are (pardon the overly technical golf jargon, please) and how scary fast they're rolling.
This figured to be a wait-til-next year week for Creamer, who is recovering from thumb surgery in April but is waging a pain-be-damned-I'm-gonna-play campaign. Her thumb, which first began bothering her last summer, is so sore that when she practices, she hits balls off a tee so as not to jar the thumb further. She has figured out a way to swing through the ball without flinching, even though she knows each impact is going to hurt like hell. The scorching temperatures, the rock-hard ground and Oakmont's famous rough aren't making it any easier, either.
"My thumb is already so swollen and it's so hot that everything is so swollen," Creamer said after her round.
Yet Creamer was tied for the lead at one under par with two holes to play in the opening round before Oakmont bit back. She played on because she's game and certainly because she knows the Open is her best chance to win a major championship. On a pain scale of ten, she said, her thumb is about a six and she routinely ices it four or five times a day. The Open is her fourth straight week of competition. She finished seventh in the ShopRite Classic in her return, 42nd at the LPGA Championship and missed the cut last week at the Jamie Farr Classic.
"Obviously, I want to win, that's always my goal," she said but admitted that her realistic aim this week was just to put four good rounds together. At an Open this difficult, that might be plenty good enough to win. She's got enough experience to know that. This is her eighth Open, which seems hard to believe. Even harder, she's still only 23 years old. She just plays with the maturity of a crafty veteran.
"For me, I'm playing pretty conservative," she said. "I had a couple of ten-foot putts that I just had to lag. You don't want to live on four-and five-footers for par every hole out here. This course, you have to be precise and strike the ball well. Those are the things I'm very good at. Those are my strengths. But not having played as much, those are things I've had to work on the last couple of days.
"I've got lots of positive energy. I love playing in the Open. That really motivates me."
Creamer went to one under par after she made the turn and ran in a slick 25-footer for birdie on the first hole. She missed the par-3 eighth green to the right with a 3-wood and made bogey, then hit her 3-wood approach at the par-5 ninth between the bunkers, pitched to 35 feet and three-putted for another bogey.
"If somebody said, would you take one over before going out there? Of course," she said. "I played 16 holes great, played to my game plan. I just tried to get as many pars as I could. It was unfortunate on 8 and 9. I missed a five-footer on 8 and then I three-putted 9. It's not what you want but you have to look at the overall picture."
She's got the ability but in the big picture, the big question is whether Creamer's thumb can hold up for four rounds over brutish Oakmont. She'll have her answer by Sunday night.