For Americans, the ultimate dream
From little kids practicing putts to win the U.S. Women's Open to agonizing close calls to the ultimate dream come true, Paula Creamer, Juli Inkster, Meg Mallon, Patty Sheehan and Hollis Stacy recall their journeys.
Paula Creamer -- 2010
Paula Creamer's favorite color is pink, right? Well, that certainly is the hue the "Pink Panther" is known for. But it might actually come in fourth place, after a three-way tie for first.
"We've been asked many years now, 'Where are the Americans?' We're here," said Creamer, who's had to answer countless questions about the U.S. players' performance on the LPGA Tour in her career. "And there are a lot of great juniors coming through the ranks as well. You see a lot of hope for us.
"It's just [about] getting the job done. There are so many great players, which makes it exciting. But we want to see that red, white and blue on the leaderboard."
The last time the colors of the United States flag finished on top at the U.S. Women's Open was in 2010, when Creamer won at Oakmont in Pennsylvania. She has 10 LPGA victories, but that is her lone major.
Creamer's best season on the LPGA Tour was 2008, when she won four times. But in 2009, she sustained a thumb injury that lingered into 2010 and proved to be more serious than first thought. She had surgery on it that March.
The U.S. Women's Open in July 2010 was her fourth event after the operation, and she wasn't expecting much.
"Sometimes that can help you, actually," said her longtime caddie Colin Cann, who previously worked with Annika Sorenstam. "The U.S. Open is more a mental thing; I was lucky enough to also win a couple with Annika.
"It's about controlling your emotions, accepting things and carrying on. Not making it bigger than what it is. Paula handled herself great that week. Her game was good and her mind was good."
Creamer was consistently strong all tournament. She took over the lead after the second round and held on from there. She shot a final-round 69 and won by four shots.
Creamer subsequently played well over the next few years but couldn't quite find her way back to a victory. The most agonizing loss was in 2012, when she fell in a nine-hole playoff to Jiyai Shin at the Kingmill Championship. Then in 2013, she had six top-10s and was part of the losing U.S. Solheim Cup team.
Still, Creamer thought she was on the verge of winning again, and it came in dramatic fashion. On the second playoff hole at a tournament in Singapore, she sank a 75-foot putt for eagle.
"It's something I will never forget, probably one of the best shots I've ever made," Creamer said. "It was a big relief."
Creamer comes into this year's U.S. Women's Open with two other top-10 finishes, but both of those preceded her victory in March. If there's a time when her game might really come alive, it's at this major. Along with her 2010 victory, she's had four other top-10 finishes at the U.S. Women's Open in the last six years. She tied for fourth in 2013.
Creamer is from a family with a lot of military ties, and she's engaged to an Air Force pilot. To her, patriotism factors into winning the U.S. Women's Open.
"It's our national championship, and we all put an extreme amount of pressure on ourselves going into that week," Creamer said of the Americans' mindset. "We want it so bad. I've played in it many years now, and I know what that pressure's like when it gets to you in the wrong way. But it can also help you win.
"Playing in the U.S. Open is so awesome. The people love it, and we're playing great golf courses. The best players usually rise to the top that week, because it is such a test and a grind. You have to have such a strong mental game, and that's why it's the toughest tournament of the year."
Juli Inkster -- 1999, 2002
Juli Inkster is a native Californian who grew up in the Golden State. But Kansas felt just like home to her in July 2002, when she won her second U.S. Women's Open title.
"I had a history there," Inkster said.
In 1980 at Prairie Dunes in Hutchinson, Kansas, Inkster had won the first of her three consecutive U.S. Women's Amateur titles. Then in 2002, Prairie Dunes was the site of the U.S. Women's Open.
Inkster entered the final day of that tournament two shots behind Annika Sorenstam. The Swede was in the midst of her most successful year, as she won 11 times in 2002. But not at Prairie Dunes.
"I kind of came out of nowhere to win the U.S. Amateur there," Inkster said. "To come back 22 years later and win the U.S. Open, I had a real connection to the Kansas people.
"Believe me, I felt it. And maybe Annika felt it the other way a little bit. It was like I had home-court advantage; they rallied around the American player."
Inkster, then 42, made that easy for the fans on the last day because she kept giving them putts to roar about. Sorenstam, in a pairing behind Inkster, knew the heat was on.
"My putter was hot that week; the hole looked like a Frisbee," said Inkster, who had just 25 putts Sunday as she closed with a 66. "I kept my foot on the gas, and then I looked up and had a two-shot lead going into 18."
Sorenstam finished with an even-par 70 and had to settle for one of her two runner-up finishes in the Women's Open.
"I didn't lose today; Juli won," Sorenstam said that day.
It was the second U.S. Women's Open title of Inkster's career. Both came in what Inkster called the "second act" of her career -- after she'd had her two daughters.
Her first U.S. Women's Open championship was in 1999 at Old Waverly in Mississippi. That year going into the final round, Inkster had to sleep on the lead. Or at least try to.
"I didn't sleep at all that night, thinking, "How could I mess this up?' " Inkster said. "I had some tough moments early where I had to fight through it. But on the back side, I played fairly well and won by five shots.
"It was a great thrill, like, 'I've done it, and this is something I've always wanted in my career. I feel fulfilled.'"
Inkster had come close to winning one other U.S. Women's Open title, and that was in 1992. But Patty Sheehan prevailed by two shots in an 18-hole playoff, a loss that Inkster called "devastating."
"You just never know if you're going to have another shot at it," Inkster said. "You can have a great, phenomenal career, but being American and winning your major tournament ... you can go anywhere in the world and say you won the U.S. Open and everyone knows what it is. It kind of validates and separates you as a player. It's huge."
In a stretch from 1995 to 2002, Inkster was the only American to win the U.S. Women's Open, which was a sign of things to come. In the past nine years, only two Americans -- Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer -- have won the title considered to be the most prestigious in women's golf.
"I think it's the most mentally and physically challenging," said Inkster, who has 31 LPGA victories, seven of them majors. "You really have to have all aspects of your game working. It's not always the person who's hitting or putting the best that wins. It's the person who can handle the stress and the pressure that comes with the U.S. Open."
Meg Mallon -- 1991, 2004
Meg Mallon got her second U.S. Women's Open victory at a tournament that started with an accidental theft by a nun and ended with fireworks.
"It's kind of a funny story," Mallon said.
Here's what happened. Mallon came into the 2004 event with an annoying problem: She kept missing short putts. And on her first hole at The Orchards in Massachusetts, she missed badly from just 2 feet.
"I thought, 'Oh, God, this is going to be a long week,'" Mallon said.
A few holes later, Mallon's shot went left off the fairway and landed not far from a concession stand. When she came up to find it, the ball was gone.
"Then one of the spectators said, 'Meg, I saw someone pick up your ball and walk away with it,' " Mallon said. "So the rules officials told me to drop it in the vicinity. Then I ended up making an unbelievable par, and it just sort of turned my whole day around."
It wasn't until after she finished her round that Mallon found out what had occurred with the "disappearing" ball.
"The woman who took my ball was a nun," Mallon said, laughing. "She was watching another group when she overheard some people talking about what happened. And she was like, 'Oh, my gosh, that was me!' She had just seen a ball sitting on the ground near a food stand and had put it in her pocket, not realizing it was in play. But, you know, it felt like that hole just changed everything for me."
Well, that's golf. Mallon got better as the tournament went on. She shot a final-round 65, holding off Annika Sorenstam by two strokes. Then as darkness fell at The Orchards, the skies lit up in pyrotechnic celebration. OK, not actually because of Mallon's victory ... that final-round Sunday was also the Fourth of July.
Still, you couldn't blame Mallon if she felt as if the fireworks were for her. She had set a record -- which still stands -- for the longest time between U.S. Women's Open victories. Her first had come 13 years earlier at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, when she was 28.
Mallon credited her 1991 championship to what she'd gleaned the previous year while playing in a final-round pairing with Patty Sheehan and Jane Geddes. In that 1990 U.S. Women's Open, Sheehan let a 10-shot lead get away on a grueling, 36-hole Sunday.
"I learned from that experience that you just never give up on the Open," Mallon said. "You never know what's going to happen. It's a battle; you have to just keep plugging away and hanging in there."
Mallon did that in 1991. She trailed entering the last day but posted a final-round 67 that gave her a two-shot victory.
"I had won the LPGA Championship two weeks prior to that; it had been my first major and second win overall of my career," Mallon said. "It was a big deal, but the U.S. Women's Open just blew me away. It's a whole different level and category itself as far as the attention, the recognition you get by winning it.
"It can't be oversaid that as a kid, you practice putts saying, 'This is to win the U.S Open.' Now, maybe the British Open might rival it a little for the European players. But the U.S. Open is still the pinnacle of women's golf."
Patty Sheehan -- 1992, 1994
At one point, Patty Sheehan thought she might be too old to win the tournament she valued most.
"It's weird how you can win so many tournaments, and the one you want so badly, you don't get," Sheehan said. "I don't know if I got in my own way, but I feel very lucky that I was able to do it. And to win it twice is huge."
Sheehan won the U.S. Open in 1992 at age 35 and again in '94 after finishing runner-up three times in frustrating fashion.
At the '90 Open at the Atlanta Athletic Club, she relinquished a 12-stroke lead early in the third round and lost to Betsy King by one stroke. The year before, Sheehan went into the last round tied for the lead only to shoot a 79 and end up in a tie for 17th place.
"It made me more determined to win it, because I knew I had the capabilities to win an Open," Sheehan said.
In '92, Sheehan's longtime caddie Carl Laib provided her with a comprehensive game plan after spending a week at the famed Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club before she arrived.
"My whole mindset was different in '92," Sheehan recalled. "The rough was really thick, awful, so my main focus was to keep the ball in the fairway.
"I didn't hit a lot of drivers on this extremely long course because I wanted to keep the ball in the short grass. Because I did that, I was able to hit a lot of greens. But just because you hit the green at Oakmont doesn't mean anything, because the greens are enormous. But I'd rather be putting than chipping."
Sheehan birdied 17 and 18 on Sunday, as she and close friend and former college teammate Juli Inkster both shot 69s to finish regulation tied for the lead at 280, forcing an 18-hole playoff on Monday.
"It was a real grind having to go back out there and play Monday after four days," said Inkster, who had won three majors going into the tournament but was also shooting for her first Open title. "And I didn't play as well as I had been playing. [Sheehan] birdied those last two holes [Sunday] ... so all that is going through your mind and you're replaying what could have gone differently."
Sheehan was outdriven off the tee Monday, but she made up for it on the greens, one-putting six times on the back nine, once for birdie -- an 18-footer on the 10th hole. She bogeyed 17 and 18 but never trailed, as Inkster had two three-putt bogeys.
Both were physically drained and emotional afterward, Sheehan calling it "grueling, the toughest tournament ever" and Inkster labeling it the biggest disappointment of her career.
The win for Sheehan was her third major title and 29th tour victory, leaving her one short of the total needed to earn a berth in the LPGA Hall of Fame.
In remarks afterward, she called the Open "a major monkey off my back" and referred to 1990. "Two years ago, it was tears of sadness. Now it's tears of joy," she said.
"It was certainly one of the biggest moments [of my career]. Not only for the win, but because I was marching toward the Hall of Fame and I needed two different majors to get in at that point along with 30 tournament wins, so that was a huge hurdle to get under my belt."
Sheehan realized her Hall of Fame dream the following year, lessening the pressure, she said, going into the '94 Open at Indianwood Golf and Country Club in Lake Orion, Michigan.
She also got a little luck, averting another Monday playoff when Tammie Green barely missed a 10-foot birdie putt Sunday on 18. Sheehan knocked in a 4-footer for par to finish at 7-under 277, making her the 10th repeat champ in Women's Open history.
"I think as I grew older and had more experience playing the Open, I learned patience was so important," she said. "I was thinking that at some point in time I was going to be too old to win the Open. That's why I think winning in '92 was so important. I didn't have to think about winning the Open anymore. I was able to relax and make it a little easier on myself."
Sheehan said she is looking forward to watching the Open this year, more so than ever before.
And for an American to win again, Sheehan said, would be that much more special.
"The U.S. Open holds so much history for us Americans, it means so much more to us than anybody who comes from outside the U.S.," she said. "It's just one of those patriotic feelings that we want to win our own Open.''
-- Melissa Isaacson
Hollis Stacy -- 1977, 1978, 1984
Hollis Stacy doesn't mean it to sound arrogant. It's just something she came to believe soon after taking up golf seriously as a kid in the 1960s.
"I always knew I was going to win an Open," Stacy said, "because I had a superlative short game. That is the key to winning one."
She didn't stop at just one U.S. Women's Open title. She won three: in 1977, '78 and '84. Stacy is one of four players to do that. Only two women -- Mickey Wright and Betsy Rawls, with four each -- have won this premier major more times.
Stacy, a Georgia native, was active in a lot of sports even at a time when there weren't many options for girls. Once she tried golf, though, she knew it was the right fit for her. From a family with 10 children, Stacy said she especially loved to go out on a course and play by herself whenever she could.
She was successful at other USGA events too, taking the U.S. Girls' Junior title three times and the North and South Women's Amateur. The latter event was held in 1970 at Pinehurst, site of this year's U.S. Women's Open.
Asked how much it meant to her to be an American winning the U.S. Women's Open, Stacy gave an answer that reflected the time in which she played.
"I think this 'us against the world' mentality is more recent in the LPGA," she said. "But when I played, there were so few international players on the tour. I felt like, you win for yourself and your family. I wasn't thinking that I was winning for my country."
Other players near the same age as Stacy did view it in more nationalistic terms. Nancy Lopez was one, and her ardor for the U.S. Women's Open was all the more stoked because it was the only event of importance she never won during her Hall of Fame career. Stacy was one of the reasons why Lopez didn't.
Stacy was the victor in one of Lopez's four second-place finishes at the championship, in 1977, at Hazeltine in Minnesota. Stacy won that title by two shots.
In 1978, Lopez had her monster rookie season on the LPGA Tour, in which she won nine times. But Stacy was the U.S. Women's Open winner that year too, in Indianapolis.
A third U.S. Women's Open victory came when Stacy rallied on the final day of the 1984 championship at Salem Country Club in Massachusetts. She entered the final round five strokes off the lead and shot a 69 to take the trophy.
Stacy, who now resides in Colorado, is proud of the generation she grew up in and thinks its skill level was very high. She played with a wood driver and had a 54-degree wedge. She was creative about hitting a lower angle and playing the bounces.
Her prize money for winning three U.S. Women's Open titles was a combined $62,000, which is approximately what Lexi Thompson and Karrie Webb made for tying for 13th at the 2013 U.S. Women's Open.
Stacy doesn't begrudge them a cent of that.
"My career and my life have been fantastic," she said. "I'm not bitter because they are playing for the winner to get over a half-a-million dollars now. I think the winner should get a million. I think they deserve that."