Salas works way into contention at Kraft

Lizette Salas during the second round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

Lizette Salas during the second round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

— Martha Salas’ hand flew to her mouth when she got within viewing distance of the electronic leaderboard beside the No. 18 green. Daughter Lizette, with three birdies on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course’s back nine, had climbed to within one shot of Inbee Park’s 7-under lead. This was just the first time Martha had noticed.

It would have been easy for Lizette to lose that second-place position at No. 18. She hit her second shot at the par 5 into deep rough and would need to carry over water to get to the green in three. She stood for several minutes and consulted caddie Greg Puga. Eventually, she hit a short chip back into the fairway, hit her fourth shot to 4 feet and made the putt for a safe par.

She wouldn’t have made the same decision a year ago.

“I’m comfortable in my short game and I’m not a long hitter, so I have to make it up some way,” Salas said. “I’ve been working hard and dialing in with my wedge because that’s your go-to club.”

Salas was a four-time All-American at USC – where she became the first in her family to earn a college degree – but her game didn’t hit the next level until last year, her rookie season on the LPGA Tour. There are a number of reasons for that. In a recent conversation with USC head coach Andrea Gaston, Salas referred to her old style of play as “boring golf.” Since college, she’s switched instructors, switched caddies, switched clubs and built a team of people around her that have her headed for success.

The past two tournaments have produced a top-4 and top-6 finish, respectively, and learning how to play in contention has been one of the biggest factors in Salas’ success. Back at USC, Gaston tried to prepare Salas and her teammates for that. The team does a drill where they stand on the putting green and have to make a circle of putts. Gaston would stand nearby, setting up scenarios.

This putt is to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. This putt is to win the NCAAs.

A few months after graduating, Salas faced a putt to end a nine-woman playoff for the final card at LPGA Q-School. She made it.

“We didn’t rehearse that,” Gaston says.

Gaston affectionately refers to her former player as Lily. She’s not sure how it got started, but the name is stamped on the side of Salas’ golf shoes. Gaston frequently shows up in Salas’ galleries, and shakes her head at how far Salas has come.

“I don’t know what she’s got inside her, but it’s something special,” she said.

Helen Alfredsson, a former European Solheim Cup captain saw it at Mission Hills, too. Playing alongside Salas for the first two rounds, Alfredsson called Salas “one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.”

“Unassuming,” Alfredsson said. “Just gets the job done.”

For an unassuming talent, however, Salas seems to have attracted and surrounded herself with all the right people. LPGA Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez is her mentor, sometimes appearing in her galleries, sometimes sending her text messages. Among this week’s texts was the simple directive “kick butt.” Salas also counts Oscar de la Hoya, with whom she played Wednesday, as a role model.

“They never say no to an autograph or picture and they’re optimistic and positive and yet so passionate and fierce,” Salas said. “They’re not scared of anything.”

That’s an ambitious number of adjectives to live up to, but Salas already has benefitted from having quality role models in her corner. She didn’t stumble into the situation.

The next thing Salas hopes for is that this threesome notices her: Meg Mallon, Dottie Pepper, Laura Diaz. American players get double Solheim Cup points at major championships, which could bode well for Salas. She never received a Junior Solheim Cup or Curtis Cup pick as an amateur, but look to Salas’ Trojan days for a sense of her team spirit. Salas was a rock for USC.

One wonders if holing the winning Solheim Cup putt was among Gaston’s scenarios, though it’s not like Salas needed someone to spell it out for her.

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