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Leader of the Pack

On a cool Friday morning in mid-December, Paula Creamer is hitting balls at her alma mater, IMG Academy, the prestigious sports complex for young athletes in Bradenton, Fla. She is hard to miss: tall and leggy, her trademark pony tail poking from her cap and Pink Panther headcovers peering out of her pink TaylorMade bag. Other players at the practice area seem galvanized, even awed, by her presence. The young ones wait respectfully for an opening--a pause between shots, a sip of water--before approaching her for an autograph and to take her picture. About 100 yards away, a group of teenage boys loiter, watching her from afar, until one of them, a slim kid with bushy hair, gets up the nerve to stroll over and ask her to sign a club cover. ("What'd she say?" his compadres ask when he returns with his prize.) Creamer graciously obliges her fans' requests and, after exhorting them in her baby-doll voice to "Play well!" returns to hitting one deliberate shot after another, which arc effortlessly into the hazy sky. After about 20 minutes of this, she goes inside the golf school headquarters. Positioning herself next to a large mirror on the wall of a small, cluttered room, she practices her takeaway, keeping a close eye on her technique, not unlike the way those boys outside had kept their eyes on her.

Minutes later, her coach, David Whelan, director of IMG's David Leadbetter Golf Academy, arrives to confer. Whelan, a former European Tour player from England, has been her coach for four years, and they have the easygoing rapport of old friends. The steady stream of fans doesn't surprise him. "We may have to practice elsewhere," he says. "There are too many distractions here. A year ago, she was just another student."

Whelan doesn't have to say what Creamer is now: a star. Her record--two LPGA wins (plus two more wins in Japan), the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year award, a No. 2 ranking behind Annika Sorenstam--accounts only in part for her popularity. She is a born performer, mediagenic, articulate and preternaturally poised. Above all, she is fearless. At the final LPGA event of the season, the ADT Challenge, she and Sorenstam butted heads twice over the rules, first over a ball mark on the 16th green, and then on the 18th. Sorenstam's tee shot had ended up in a bunker inside a marked lateral water hazard, and she wanted to take an advantageous drop. Creamer insisted she re-tee. An official finally made a compromise decision, but Creamer had served notice that she will not be intimidated--by anyone.

The encounter was a teaser of showdowns to come, and one reason that the 2006 LPGA season is one of the most anticipated in history. If Creamer and the new crop of like-minded young players--notably Morgan Pressel, Michelle Wie and Japan's Ai Miyazato--play to their potential, they could usher in a golden age of women's professional golf.

Both Creamer and the LPGA are in the right place at the right time. In 1972 Congress passed Title IX, the federal law that guarantees schoolgirls equal access to educational opportunities, including sports. By the time Creamer reached middle school in the late 1990s, she had her pick of sports: soccer, swimming, gymnastics, acrobatic dance, T-ball, tennis. At 10, she discovered the game she was born to play, and eight years later, she was winning professional events on golf courses from New York to Tokyo, snagging sponsorship deals and posing with large cardboard checks.

"Paula Creamer is Title IX exploding on the golf course," says Christine Brennan, the USA Today sports columnist. "This law told girls it was okay to play sports, to be tough, to play like the boys and still look like a girl. If Billie Jean King had had a master plan of what women's sports would look like in 2006, it would be Paula: Play all these sports, love them all and then pick one that, by the way, can make you a millionaire a few months after graduating from high school."

Juli Inkster, 45, Creamer's close friend, agrees. "When I grew up, if you played sports, you weren't in the cool group. Now it's cool for women to be athletes. You look at all the homecoming queens, and they play sports."

What sets today's young golfers apart is their ironclad confidence, born from growing up in the era of chest bumps and fist pumps, of Allen Iverson, Tiger Woods, Mia Hamm and volleyball glamazon Gabrielle Reece. As Inkster puts it, "These girls aren't afraid to be assertive and to be a woman at the same time. They're girlie. It's great." Not to mention lucky: "They have their swing coach 24/7, they have video, they have the greatest technology available in clubs and balls. They have media coaches. At 19, I couldn't even spell 'media coach.' It's all out there for them."

Ask Creamer what she wants to do in 2006 and she replies, without hesitation, "Be No. 1." Ask her what she wants to do after that, and she says, "Stay there." In the meantime, she needs to get her hair done for a photo shoot. "I've been growing out my bangs," she says. "I want them cut like Ashlee Simpson's. I have a picture from a magazine."

"Maybe we can play nine on Sunday," Whelan suggests.

"Yeah," Creamer retorts. "That way I can beat you again."
 
An energetic only child, Creamer was raised by her parents, Paul and Karen, in a home on the first tee at Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton, Calif., a bedroom community near San Jose. "Paula never wanted a single thing to do with golf until she was 10," says her father, who had taken up the game as a Navy pilot. "Then one day, I was going out to hit balls and she wanted to go." Castlewood CC had one of the most dedicated youth golf programs in the region, so Paul signed his daughter up for lessons. A gymnast and acrobatic dancer, Creamer would loosen up by doing cartwheels on the lesson tee. During their sessions, her coach, Larry O'Leary, would pull out a pack of Life Savers as incentive. "He wouldn't just give one to me, I had to earn it," she recalls. "And when I got it, I savored it forever."

At 12, her school forced her to choose between cheerleading and golf because the practice schedules overlapped. Her father goosed her decision by asking, "Do you want to cheer for other people or do you want them to cheer for you?" She chose golf. In middle school she played on the boy's golf team; by 13, she was the top-ranked junior girl golfer in California. One day, she told her father about "a golf academy for juniors in Florida" that she'd heard about. Paul, a pilot for American Airlines, transferred to Miami, and before long the Creamers relocated to Bradenton (they've kept their Pleasanton home, hoping to return someday). "It was a huge deal for them to move here. They left their lives in California to help me live mine."

"Her short game was poor," Whelan recalls. "She had to get a lot better from 100 yards and in. But she was a gutsy competitor with a great desire to win." Their work paid off. From 2001 to 2004, Creamer built a stellar resumé: 2002 U.S. Ping Junior Solheim Cup Team member, 2003 Rolex Junior Player of the Year, 2004 Curtis Cup player. She had every intention of attending college, but after tying for top amateur with Michelle Wie (13th) at the 2004 U.S. Women's Open, she and her parents decided to give LPGA Tour Qualifying School a go. She lapped the field, winning by five strokes, at 18 the youngest player ever to win the grueling event. "I went to Q school as an amateur and left as a professional."

Creamer says this while sitting in her kitchen, as a hair colorist from Miami--a slim, personable man with a shaved head--plasters a honey-brown base onto her roots, followed by a headful of highlights wrapped in foil. Like many athletes' families, Creamer and her parents live at the IMG Academy, in a two-bedroom condo filled with photos and trophies. Her father, who has a reputation for gruffness (he is merely protective), flew a P-3 Orion antisubmarine aircraft during his naval career, and his home office resembles a command post from which he deals with Paula's agent, money manager and all the other people who come with having a teen millionaire for a daughter. The Creamers guide Paula, but they don't tell her what to do--other than the fact that her father won't let her buy a car. "He comes up with every excuse," she moans. "Maybe it's because you drive too fast!" he yells from his office.

Creamer does splurge on occasion: Last spring, after winning her first tournament, she bought Louis Vuitton purses for herself and her mother. "I always had $5 purses," says Karen, who sits behind the kitchen counter. "Paula would say, 'When I make my first money, I'm buying you a nice purse.' And last Mother's Day, there it was."

Creamer calls her mom the unsung hero of Team Creamer, the one who answers her fan mail and makes her take her vitamins and travels with her on tour. "My dad and I are very very similar. Mom keeps everyone together. When I'm out there and something goes wrong, I just see my mom and she smiles, and everything's fine. I'm very hyper. She's calmer, less intense. If I need someone to yell at, I yell at my mom."

"I understand that she needs to let go sometimes, with the pressure and all," Karen explains. "She doesn't do it very often. We spend an awful lot of time in hotels together. What's funny is sometimes, when she has her own room, she wants me to come sleep with her."

"You like it, you know you do. You get lonely," her daughter teases.

Creamer calls shopping and primping for photo shoots the "fun stuff," the dividends she earns for being a tough-as-nails competitor. "This is when I can become a girl, not just a golfer. I can become myself." Creamer often speaks of herself as two people: the golfer with the killer instinct and the teenager who plots her tournament outfits months in advance and gets polka dots painted on her fingernails. The color pink, her trademark, is where the tough girl and the girlie girl intersect. "On the course I'm very serious and focused on winning. Pink is the girl side of me, not the athletic, driven person."

Before the 2005 season, Creamer and her mental-conditioning coach at IMG, Chris Passarella, typed up a list of goals. It included: qualify for the Kraft Nabisco Championship; win rookie of the year; win an LPGA major; make the Solheim Cup Team. Passarella had the list laminated, and Creamer carried it with her on tour, tucked away in a suitcase. Her aspirations struck some observers as cocky, particularly the Solheim goal--it takes most players two years to accumulate enough points to make the team. The rookie had about six months. One by one, she began to tick off her goals, though it wasn't as easy at it looked.
"I expected to win the first couple of tournaments, I really did," says Creamer with her usual matter-of-factness. She tied for 40th at her first event, the SBS Open. Creamer can turn dramatic if things aren't going well. She gets teary, crosses her arms, taps her foot, gazes hard into the distance, as if staring down the golf gods who insist on torturing her. "I try to keep my emotions in check, but, I mean, you can't do it all the time. I was getting very frustrated." Then, at the MasterCard Classic in Mexico, Creamer shot a final round 68, moving up from a tie for 39th to a tie for 6th. That finish put her into the top 15 on the money list, qualifying her for the Kraft Nabisco Championship. There she finished tied for 19th, followed by a third-place finish at the LPGA Takefuji Classic in Las Vegas.

Creamer says that "nothing can prepare you for playing on the LPGA Tour," and the unexpected happened at the Michelob Ultra Open at Kingsmill in Virginia. On the fourth hole of the first practice round, her caddie, Englishman Colin Cann, 38, went to retrieve a ball from a greenside bunker. Hurrying down the steep embankment, he slipped on the dew-slick grass and heard a snap as he went down. He'd shattered three bones in his right ankle and lower leg. Creamer was devastated. That evening, at the hospital, Cann said to her, "You're going to win, so be prepared."

With her boyfriend, Tarik Can, a student at Augusta State University whom she met at IMG Academy, on her bag, Creamer tied for 34th at Kingsmill. The next week, with Whelan looping, she missed the cut at the Chick-Fil-A Charity Championship, logging only a single birdie. Afterward, Whelan told her, "You realize, Paula, for the last two days you've had 83 shots from 40 yards and in." They spent the next day working on chipping. "I couldn't do a basic bump-and-run straight uphill to save my life. That day was a wake-up call."

On May 22, Cann's prophecy came true in the final round of the Sybase Classic at Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y. In a field without Sorenstam, on a tough, rain-soaked course, the 18-year-old found herself tied for the lead at five under par on the 18th hole, with co-leader Jeong Jang in the clubhouse. Creamer was left with a 17-foot birdie putt for her first LPGA win. Where other rookies might have choked, Creamer (with a clutch read from her stand-in caddie, Lance Bennett) calmly sank it. "I picked up the ball and it was so exciting. I wish that I would have felt it a little longer--it happened so fast."
Later, after she'd signed her scorecard, officials told her that she was the youngest player ever to win a multiround LPGA event. The next week she returned to Bradenton for her high school graduation, trailed by a camera crew from ABC's World News Tonight, which named her its Person of the Week.

Creamer proceeded to log three top-five finishes in the next six tournaments. In July, at the Evian Masters in France, she won by eight strokes over Wie and Lorena Ochoa, and by 12 over Sorenstam. One month later, she tied for second with Sorenstam at the Wendy's Championship for Children, effectively clinching the rookie of the year title. And at 19, she became the youngest player and first tour rookie to make the U.S. Solheim Cup team.

Her challenge to the Europeans at a pre-Solheim press conference was vintage Creamer: "They better get ready, because they're going to get beat. I'm laying it down." Behind the scenes, she was equally confident. "I told Nancy [Lopez] going into it, 'Put me out. You do whatever you think is best, but I can play five matches.' I said to her, 'Yes, you have to have experience, but I didn't get here by not doing anything.'"

With Cann back on her bag, his ankle held together with pins and a metal plate, Creamer played every match at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Carmel, Ind. She and the other two U.S. Solheim rookies, Christina Kim and Natalie Gulbis, helped lead the Americans to a 15 -12 victory. On Sunday, she trounced British veteran Laura Davies in their singles match, making seven birdies in a row, a new Solheim record.

Creamer knows that her remarkable rookie season raises the odds for a sophomore slump--there is little room at the top, but lots of room to tumble. She prefers to focus on what she needs to do to beat Sorenstam: Her short game has shaped up, but she must get fitter and gain 20 yards off the tee. She's looking forward to playing against the new LPGA rookies, many of whom she competed against on the American Junior Golf Association circuit.

Does she consider Wie a main rival?

"Whoever's on top, that's who I want to beat. Right now, that's Annika. Michelle has definitely helped women's golf, and if she does that, I'll benefit, also."

When the subject of the tense rules showdown with Sorenstam in November comes up, Creamer's blue eyes turn steely and her voice turns testy. "I am 19, I am a rookie, but you know what? I'm not out there to give anyone anything. What's fair is fair. Annika and I are fine with the whole thing. We talked about it and said there's nothing we can do about it. Let's move on."

Apparently they did: Two weeks later, Sorenstam chose Creamer as her partner for the Lexus Cup, a new team event in Singapore. Why? "I never asked her. I want to win, she wants to win." (They did.) Besides, there's nothing like a fierce rivalry to stoke a sport's popularity. "Every sport has one," says Creamer. "Why not women's golf?"

And at the thought, she giggles.

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