With all apologies to Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards, if a movie were to be made about this first round of the Evian Championship a good title would be “The Return of the Pink Panther.” And as plotlines go, this story would be way better than anything Hollywood could ever make up, with more subplots than a Charles Dickens novel.
Fourteen years after winning what was then the Evian Masters as a teenager and nine years after a major championship in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open, Paula Creamer turned back time with a 64 on Thursday for a one-stroke lead in her quest for a second major. But the chase is on at the Evian Resort Golf Club.
Another twist in the plot came late in the day when Mi Hyang Lee, a two-time LPGA winner who has hovered near the lead a few times in majors, including this year’s ANA Inspiration, where she was second, posted 65 in the third from the last group, with a bogey on the par-5 18th where she could have taken the lead with a birdie.
Also hot on the heels of the Pink Panther are this year’s best player so far, the woman with the most career majors among active players and a young talent who was runner-up here in 2017. It had already been a week of parties as the Evian celebrates its 25th anniversary, but when the golf got going, the fun-o-meter was really turned up.
There was not much of a surprise when Jin Young Ko, the ANA Inspiration winner who leads in just about every major award this season, posted a 65. She was soon joined by Inbee Park, who has 19 LPGA wins and seven majors, and Brittany Altomare, who is chasing her first LPGA win after finishing second here in 2017.
It was the seven-under-par round by Creamer that sizzled as much as the mercury, which flirted with 100 degrees, and it was as much of a surprise as the extreme heat in the foothills of the French Alps. Creamer, who has battled injuries and off-course distractions, has only one of her 10 LPGA wins since the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open.
But a new putter, a new putting style and renewed confidence has led to four-top-20 finishes in her last five starts, including T-6 last week in the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational with her partner Morgan Pressel. Her hand, first operated in 2010, seems to be healed and her focus is back on golf.
Creamer has struggled on the greens for several years and the strain of trying to hit it close so she’d have shorter putts eventually wore on her ball striking. Last year she was No. 121 in Putts/GIR and while she’s only moved to No. 119 this year, there has been marked improvement of late.
“I've been kind of changing my putting a lot the last several months,” Creamer said about a new putter she put in her bag at Kingsmill and a new stance. “Arkansas was really when I went to more of a split stance, my left foot behind. I've started AimPoint as well after ShopRite. It seems to be working well.”
A key word for Creamer right now is control, and she’s controlling her ball much better, both with full shots and putts, and she’s controlling her emotions better on and off the golf course. When she does have a missed shot, she now has the confidence to make the up-and-down.
“It's been crazy the last four, five years of my life,” Creamer said. “I feel like I'm in a really good place off and on the golf course. It's hard enough out here, and then you bring your other life into the mix of things. I feel very good. Not every day is a going to be great. Not every day is going to be bad either. I just feel like mentally I'm in a very, very strong place.”
Also chasing Creamer are Jennifer Kupcho and Mel Reid at 66; Sung Hyun Park, Austin Ernst and Chella Choi at 67 with Annie Park, Moriya Jutanugarn, Charley Hull, Sei Young Kim, Megan Khang and Mi Jung Hur at 68.
If Park were to win she’d join Karrie Webb as the only players with the Super Slam – victories in five different majors. Park, who won Evian in 2012, before it was a major, last captured a major at the 2015 AIG Women’s British Open and has uncharacteristically struggled with the putter the last couple of years.
“I hit shots close, but I was able to hole some good putts out there today, so it was a big relief,” Park said Thursday. “I always kind of thought that if I can have the putting average under maybe 28, 29 it would be very ideal and probably will be able to win with the golf tournament,” said Park, who had 27 putts.
Ko closed with a bang, making birdies on the last four holes and eight of the last 12, using only 23 putts on the round. She came into Evian leading in the Race to the CME Globe Points, Rolex Player of the Year points, scoring and the Rolex ANNIKA Major Awards and was second on the money list.
“Four years ago, my feeling to just make par, not get birdies,” Ko said. “But now I can do aggressive on the course. Then my caddie knows this course, so he help me a lot,” she said about Dave Brooker, who is surpassed by few in Evian appearances.
Friday will be Act 2 of “The Pink Panther Returns” and somehow this seems like a fitting place for Creamer to return to glory – pink is the theme color of the tournament. And not even Hollywood can make that up.