OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) — Paula Creamer wondered a few months ago if she would ever play golf again the way her badly injured left thumb was hurting.
What she couldn’t have possibly guessed is she would play like this.
Creamer shed the title of being the best women’s golfer to not win a major, never wavering during a four-shot victory Sunday at the U.S. Women’s Open in which she steadily put away a field that couldn’t match her confidence or consistency.
Creamer started with a three-stroke lead, then never let it go below two shots during a 2-under 69 that gave her a 3-under 281 for the tournament. Na Yeon Choi of South Korea shot a 5-under 66 at a softened-up Oakmont Country Club to tie Suzann Pettersen of Norway for second place at 1-over 285.
“That question always lurked: ‘How come you never won a major?'” said Creamer, whose thumb remained heavily bandaged during her post-tournament news conference. “Now we never have to get asked that question again. It’s kind of a big relief off my shoulders.”
Most of all, a big relief off a hyperextended left thumb she estimates is only 60 percent healed.
Limited to 40 practice shots before each round to lessen the pounding on a thumb that was surgically repaired in March, Creamer found the best possible way to limit the discomfort: take as few strokes as possible.
The 23-year-old Creamer, known as the Pink Panther for her all-pink attire, faded badly in the late rounds of the last two Women’s Opens, and she missed the cut at last week’s Jamie Farr Classic won by Choi. But she was as strong at Oakmont as her thumb is weak, with earlier rounds of 72, 70 and 70.
She had to be; after all, she punished that thumb by playing 52 holes during the final two days, 23 on Sunday, because of Friday’s heavy rain that slowed down some of the fastest, trickiest greens in golf and created better scores.
“I was in pain, but I was trying to do everything to not think about it,” Creamer said. “It shows you how much the mental side of golf can really take over.”
With Creamer’s lead briefly down to two strokes, her two biggest confidence-building shots of the day might have been long, par-saving putts on No. 7 and 8 – even as Choi was charging with the tournament’s second-best round. Song-Hee Kim had a 65 on Sunday and finished 13th.
Creamer, from Pleasanton, Calif., had four birdies and two bogeys, all but wrapping it up by hitting to within 10 feet out of the thick rough on the par-4 14th and dropping the putt for birdie. Only she didn’t know for sure; she never looked at a leaderboard until the 18th.
She hit another exceptional mid-iron to 4 feet on the 442-yard 15th and made that, too.
Right about then, she sensed a major was finally hers. Two weeks after Cristie Kerr won the LPGA Championship by 12 shots with domination, Creamer won with determination.
“Without a doubt, I’ve matured over the last couple of months,” said Creamer, so bored during her layoff she attended the Masters as a spectator. “It was hard. I’ve prepared for this for the last three months and it makes everything so much better. … It (the adversity) made me more of an adult.”
Creamer played only her fourth tournament since that operation required mechanical changes in her game because her right side is much stronger than her left. Forced to play 29 holes Saturday, she feared unwrapping her throbbing thumb because “it might explode.”
Her game certainly didn’t. Even if she worried in February that the thumb injury that initially occurred last year and worsened during a Thailand tournament might prevent her from regaining the form that allowed her to win eight times as an LPGA golfer by age 21.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, I might never play again,’ ” she said.
Don’t think she wanted this tournament, this title? She first studied DVDs of Oakmont Country Club a year ago, watching the 2007 U.S. Open won by Angel Cabrera. A valuable lesson it was, as Sunday’s pin placements were exactly the same as three years ago.
“Even when I had a cast on my hand, I was thinking, ‘Oakmont, Oakmont, Oakmont,’ ” she said.
Creamer stayed poised as most of the contenders around her kept tumbling, a reversal from her most recent U.S. Women’s Opens.
Brittany Lang, the first-round leader with a 69, climbed to within two shots before bogeys on the 15th and 16th dropped her six back at 287. Lang, Yang and former world No. 1 Jiyai Shin tied for fifth at 286, one behind In Kyung Kim of South Korea.
Kerr, the world’s top-ranked player, tried to charge with consecutive birdies on No. 2 and No. 3, but fell back with four bogeys in the next six holes. She tied for 17th.
“I played terrible, and Paula played great,” Kerr said.
Alexis Thompson, the 15-year-old Floridian who is the successor to Michelle Wie as the next potential big star in women’s golf, tied for 10th in her fourth Women’s Open despite some faulty putting.
“She’s the best 15-year-old I ever saw,” Pettersen said.
Choi, seven back before the final round began, couldn’t pull off the biggest comeback in tournament history. No golfer has rallied from more than five down in the final round.
“I didn’t think about trying to win, I tried to focus on my game,” Choi said. “I hit my shots with 100 percent confidence.”
Creamer is the 12th first-time winner among the last 15 majors. Until Kerr won the LPGA and Creamer won the Women’s Open, the United States had won only eight of the previous 39 majors. All nine of Creamer’s LPGA victories came as she led going into the final round.