Salas grounded as honors such as Solheim mount
When Lizette Salas wakes up in the morning, the first thing she does is turn on music.
“Every room is music,” said her mother, Martha Salas, who turns it off in one room of the house just as Lizette is turning it on in another.
This is a typical scene in the Salas’ humble Azusa, Calif., home. Questions such as “Did you feed the dog?” and “Did you pick up your room?” form the chorus of a Salas off-week.
Lizette, 24, assures her mother that all is well on the floor of her childhood bedroom, even after changing clothes five times.
“Do I have to check?” a skeptical Martha often replies.
Not much has changed for Lizette Salas since she turned professional in 2011. And yet, everything has changed.
“When I come home, I’m not the ‘LPGA tour player’ Lizette Salas,” said Salas, the youngest of three. “I turn into Martha and Ramon’s daughter.”
It’s easy for Lizette, an aunt to four, to go back to where it all started and let down her dark, curly locks. She’s a hero to aspiring little pros in Azusa, traveling to far-off lands to compete for six-figure checks, only to return and mentor at $1 youth clinics on her days off.
“She comes from a background of appreciation,” said Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, an eager mentor who frequently texts Salas and has been known to appear in her gallery.
“It makes her special to come from not having much to who she is as a pro golfer.”
That Salas earned her way onto the U.S. Solheim Cup team in only her second year on the LPGA points to a grit that’s lost on many of today’s coddled touring pros.
Each time Salas returns home to Azusa, she is reminded not only of the realities of household chores but of the struggles that surround her largely Hispanic community just east of Los Angeles.
Salas will be one of four American rookies on Meg Mallon’s U.S. Solheim Cup team Aug. 16-18 at Colorado Golf Club. And while there has been some question regarding Salas’ ability to close out majors (Kraft Nabisco, U.S. Women’s Open), there’s no disputing her ability to make birdies.
Just last month in Toledo, Ohio, she went out in 29 on Sunday. Salas chooses to focus on the good.
“I’m on a golf high,” she said.
And rightly so. It has been a long climb.
Martha Salas followed her parents to the U.S. from Mexico on her 18th birthday.
“I came here crying,” Martha Salas said.
She started out in 1973 making $1.65 per hour working in a factory. In 1974, she met Ramon. On July 29, the couple celebrated 35 years of marriage.
Ramon is head mechanic at Azusa Greens Golf Course, where he has worked for 33 years. He did work around the head pro’s house in exchange for golf lessons for Lizette. It was a trade that would set his family down a path to the American Dream.
USC coach Andrea Gaston describes Lizette’s junior career as one of “limited exposure,” meaning she played in mostly local tournaments. From age 7 through high school, she was the only girl at her course. When she was allowed to compete with boys her age, Ramon took her to the other end of the range to keep her from socializing too much. Lizette complained that no boy was going to want to hold her hand because of the calluses. Good, dad said.
Gaston had dreamed of giving a player of modest means the chance to grow at USC. In Salas, she found a future four-time All-American who wore her school-issued Nike clothes more often than the rest of the team but felt comfortable in her own skin.
Known for “boring” golf in college, Salas was told by Gaston that she would need to learn to go low if she wanted to do more than build a career on simply making cuts.
“I wanted more,” she said. “I wanted to win. I wanted to make statements.”
In 2011, Salas became the first person from her family to graduate with a college degree (sociology). From there, she and Ramon hit the road in her father’s red truck, sometimes reclining the seats at night to save on hotel money.
“I just show you the way if you don’t work hard,” Ramon said.
Salas made birdie on her 90th hole at LPGA Q-School to enter a nine-woman, three-hole playoff to secure her card. She birdied all three holes.
“That brought out the fighter in me,” Salas said, “that hunger that I’ve always looked for that my father always knew I had.”
In watching Salas, Lopez recognizes the same fire that burned inside her.
Earlier this season during the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix, Lopez helped to motivate Salas. Lopez, a former Solheim Cup captain, pulled up in a cart to a slow-starting Salas, ribbing her: “Am I going to have to show you how to do this?”
Apparently not. Prodded by her idol, Salas said she “shifted into gear” and shot 32 on the back nine.
LPGA observers notice Salas’ warm smile and ability to connect with fans, similar to Lopez’s qualities as a player.
Salas has made more than $700,000 in career earnings, prompting Gaston to warn her former player that she need not be like everyone else. “You don’t need to buy a BMW,” Gaston said. “Be wise in how you handle it.”
Salas serves on the board of the San Gabriel Junior Golf Program at her home club and knows 99 percent of the weekly 50-plus kids by name. They are fond of “Coach Lizette” hugs and can spot her 2007 Toyota Corolla around town. Parents bring out their beach chairs to watch the clinics and come to Salas for advice. Some even will drive to Colorado to show support.
Martha and Ramon became U.S. citizens in 1995. Lizette knows the Solheim Cup will be an emotional experience for all of them. Dad might even cry.
“When they see that American flag rising up, they will have a sense of pride and accomplishment for my family,” said Salas, who was told often growing up from those outside the family that she wouldn’t or couldn’t.
Martha came to this country as a scared teenager thinking America didn’t look at all like the postcards she had seen.
The view now: a dream.
“Once my confidence is up,” Lizette said, “there’s just no stopping me.”