KOHLER, Wis. – In Lizette Salas’ generation, golf didn’t exactly take. Older siblings Susy and Marvin had other interests, so Salas’ dad Ramon, a mechanic at Azusa (Calif.) Golf Course, introduced Lizette to the game. Her mom Martha jokes that she never saw her again.
That’s likely to repeat in the next generation. For proof, look to the growing Salas caravan. Lizette’s 11-year-old niece joined the family in their well-worn red truck as it crossed the country from the Northwest Arkansas Championship to Blackwolf Run. Fresh out of fifth grade, Natalie explains that she plays at least once a week. She’d like to play more with Lizette, but understands it’s not possible with her aunt’s busy tour schedule. Instead, she hovered outside the scoring trailer at the end of a scorching Thursday, long brown braid bouncing as she waited to say congratulations.
Minutes before, Salas, 22, had holed a 12-footer for birdie at Blackwolf Run’s 18th for a share of the first-round lead at the U.S. Women’s Open. It’s familiar territory for Salas, who last year was tied for second after the first round of the Open. She went on to finish T-15. She still had to qualify for this year’s tournament, and won the sectional in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Salas’ short career hasn’t been a story of easy. That her recently earned USC degree (she graduated in May 2011) is the first in her family, one that emigrated from Mexico, is old news. Salas doesn’t talk about it unless asked, and she doesn’t use her childhood for anything other than motivation and fond memories. What she’s earned has come through hard work.
“I had a great family, hard-working family with good morals, and education was first,” she said. “I was the baby of the family, so I got a lot of attention. And I think having good working parents and so optimistic helped me in my career. ”
Still, Salas has the power to bring young girls to the ropes at LPGA and Symetra tour events, her family to tears when she succeeds and crowds to their feet when she speaks publicly about what she has accomplished. She was one of three athletes to speak at last year’s USC athletic department graduation celebration. It was a moving delivery by all accounts, which made USC head women’s golf coach Andrea Gaston invite Salas – a player to whom Gaston refers affectionately as “Lily” – back to campus earlier this year to speak at a Women of Troy banquet. She got a standing ovation.
Salas’ success has been gradual in the 14 months since she turned professional. The most notable event of the past calendar year was an unlikely playoff victory at the final stage of LPGA Q-School. Salas holed an 18-foot putt on the last hole of a three-hole, nine-for-one playoff to earn her card. Little pressure in this game compares with that scenario.
Salas has only two top-25 finishes in eight LPGA starts this season, but she has made the cut in all but one. LPGA legend Nancy Lopez has reached out to Salas to offer support – Lopez already had contacted Salas by the time she hit the media room Thursday for her post-round interview. Salas also counts Lee Trevino and Lorena Ochoa as idols. She shares their way of interacting with a gallery.
“That’s the way I want to be,” she said. “A little bit of everybody and just creating my own little style out there on the golf course.”
Expect Salas to be one among the young rookies who makes it on the LPGA. She recently fell under the wing of Sterling Sports Management, which also represents players such as Stacy Lewis and Brittany Lincicome, and has picked up two sponsors in the past six months: MLC & Associates (a management and consulting firm) and Pure Silk. More are interested, understandably. New logos are only part of Salas’ transformation.
“Just getting to USC was a big goal for us, for my family,” she said. “Coach Gaston believed in me. I was just under her wing, listened, and now just on the LPGA living the dream and playing the best golf that I can. And just having fun along the way.”