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Paula Creamer waiting to make her mark

Paula Creamer bursts on to LPGA stage

Juli Inkster was on the verge of winning a tough match at the Solheim Cup when the crowd surrounding the 17th green broke into cheers. Only they weren't for her.

Paula Creamer was walking along the edge of the ropes, looking for a spot to root for Inkster. She had a big smile and a small American flag tucked into her blonde ponytail, hardly looking like a teenager who had so ruthlessly disposed of European icon Laura Davies to set the tone for a U.S. victory.

"She reminds me a lot of me at that age,'' said Inkster, a 45-year-old Grand Slam champion. "She's got the game. She loves the pressure. And she's a great kid. She's very well-mannered. She is our future.''

Creamer was among three rookies who played a pivotal role in winning the Solheim Cup. But when Inkster, U.S. Captain Nancy Lopez and other veterans talk about the LPGA's bright future, it starts with a 19-year-old who only in May went through her high school commencement.

Creamer had her share of cynics, even after winning the LPGA qualifying tournament in the fall of 2004, by saying her top goal was to play on the Solheim Cup team. She had only six months to accumulate points, and some of the established players thought she was taking on too much.

"People thought it was absurd,'' Creamer said. "I heard a lot of things. But you've got to take care of your own business out here.''

That she did. Creamer won the Sybase Classic with a birdie on the last hole. She won against an elite field at the Evian Masters in France by eight shots. She became the first LPGA Tour rookie to make the Solheim Cup team, with room to spare.

And then she became a star.

Despite two victories in Japan, two LPGA victories and two times in contention at a major, there is no greater stage in women's golf than the Solheim Cup. Creamer and 36-year-old Pat Hurst were the only two Americans to play all five matches, and Creamer contributed the most points by going 3-1-1.

She often played in the toughest matches. She usually came through.

Needing a par on the last hole of alternate-shot with Beth Daniel on the opening day, Creamer had to play an awkward bunker shot with one foot in the sand and the other planted against the side of hill, then blasted out to four feet to earn a halve. In another alternate-shot match with Inkster, she hit her best drive on the par-5 15th that set up a birdie to seize control.

Creamer went to her first Solheim Cup three years ago in Minnesota as a fan, and the highlight of her career to that point was getting to carry Inkster's bag for one hole during a practice round.

"She carried me this week,'' Inkster said.

"She carried me, too,'' said 27-year-old Cristie Kerr, who watched Creamer rattle off four birdies as they rallied from a three-hole deficit in a better-ball match Saturday.

The most impressive golf came on the final day. Creamer, the youngest player in Solheim Cup history, set records for most birdies (seven) in a singles match and best front-nine score (30).

"She's very good,'' Davies said. "I've played with her three or four times this year. She's very composed, hits a lot of good shots, never seems to miss a putt. That's good.''

Natalie Gulbis, 22, and Christina Kim, 21, also starred for the United States. Gulbis went 3-1-0, while Kim was 2-1-1. The three of them contributed eight of the 15 1/2 points won by the Americans.

What sets Creamer apart is her record.

She finished the 2005 season second on the LPGA Tour money list with $1.3 million, easily a record for a rookie, and she easily won the Rookie of the Year Award. She also won four events, two on the LPGA Tour, and another pair in Japan, and already is challenging Kerr as the best female American player out there.

When the U.S. Solheim team was announced, an exuberant Creamer put herself on the spot when she said of the European team, "All I can say is they had better get ready, because they're going to get beat.''

Reminded of that quote, Inkster smiled.

"That was so me,'' Inkster said. "It was something I would have said. She's right. If we don't believe in ourselves, who's going to believe in us?''

Creamer closed her Sunday match with a 9-iron into the middle of the 13th green. The ball landed on the ridge, then began rolling to the lower shelf as she waved her arm to guide it along until it stopped three feet from the cup.

Davies knew she was done. Her caddie came over to help read a 30-foot putt, but Davies waved him off, hit the putt and started walking toward Creamer to concede the match before the ball stopped rolling.

Asked about her challenge to Europe, Creamer smiled.

"I've said things before,'' she said. "I didn't think it would be such a big deal. You should never say anything you don't believe. But it was hard not to think we were going to win.''

Lopez didn't see Creamer play Sunday. She got updates through a radio earpiece, listening as Creamer won hole after hole, until the lead was 6-up at the turn.

"What can I say about Paula Creamer?'' she said. "I said, 'You just go out there and be the birdie-maker you've been all year, and Laura won't be able to touch you.' And she did. She is such a great talent. I remember when I could make all those putts and hit all those shots. And it's fun to see somebody do that.''

It could be fun for years to come.

December 27, 2005

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