It sounded strange, listening to Bradenton resident Paula Creamer talk about feeling rusty during the final round of the LPGA's season-opening SBS Open over the weekend at Turtle Bay in Oahu, Hawaii.
Despite not winning in 2006, the 20-year-old "Pink Panther" posted 14 top-10 finishes - including a tie for second in the Tournament of Champions - while earning $1,076,163.
But when you're used to posing with trophies, second place rings hollow. The 2005 graduate of The IMG Academy School won twice on the LPGA Tour and twice in Japan in her rookie season and played a starring role in the United States' victory against Europe in the Solheim Cup.
"It's entered my mind every day I stepped on a golf course," Creamer said of the victory drought that ended in spec-tacular fashion Saturday. "Every interview, it seemed people were asking 'Why haven't you won?' so it's nice to over-come that.
"I always say the Solheim Cup is my biggest victory, because whenever you get to represent your country and play on the winning team, that's pretty remarkable. But coming into this season knowing how hard I worked, I feel emotion-wise this is a big win. It caps a lot of things."
Creamer rolled in a double-breaking, 40-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole Saturday before parring No. 18 for a 1-stroke victory over Julieta Granada, a classmate at IMG Academy. Both women trained as juniors at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy at IMG Academy.
"I think I willed that putt (on No. 17) in," Creamer said, laughing. "It was a tricky putt and broke a lot more at the end than I thought it would, which is why it went in. It was one of those you just want to get close, but I had a good line and the right speed."
Creamer, who shot rounds of 67-70-70 for a 9-under-par total, earned $165,000. Granada, who won $1 million at last year's ADT Championship and teamed with fellow Paraguayan Celeste Troche to win the Women's World Cup in January, took home $98,269. Karrie Webb finished third, and Lorena Ochoa, Morgan Pressel and Janice Moodie tied for fourth.
"It is great to see two young players start their season off so well," DLGA-Bradenton director David Whelan said in a statement.
Whelan worked extensively with Creamer in the offseason at The Ritz-Carlton Members Golf Club.
"Paula worked very hard to get back on top of the podium, and to see it happen in the first event of the year is a very gratifying experience," Whelan said. "Julieta is doing a great job building off the momentum created after winning the ADT."
Creamer - who is in the process of moving from Bradenton to Orlando's Isleworth community - took the extreme measure of playing in a Hooters Women's Series tournament at West Orange Country Club in Winter Garden before traveling to Hawaii (Creamer finished second to Jenny Gleason of Clearwater).
"The idea was getting a scorecard in her hands and getting the juices flowing," said her agent, Jay Burton of IMG.
Creamer will try to make it 2-for-2 in the Fields Open in Hawaii beginning Thursday. She spent much of Sunday and Monday in a photo shoot for a 2008 "Pink Panther" golf fashion calendar being produced by Golf Digest-Japan; her popularity in the Asian nation may transcend the love she gets in the United States.
Not, though, in Bradenton. When she returns to Florida, she will headline the inaugural Paula 4 Kids Celebrity Event on March 2-3 at Heritage Harbour to benefit The First Tee of Sarasota/Manatee.
"Thank everyone in Bradenton for supporting me," Creamer said Sunday. "I talk a lot about my team, and fans are definitely a big part of it."