Kohler, Wis. – Lizette Salas is accustomed to the long car rides – in fact, she prefers them to flying, which makes her sick. So Salas, her father, Ramon, and 10-year-old niece Natalie piled into Ramon’s 2006 Toyota truck in Rogers, Ark., Sunday night and drove the 12-plus hours to Wisconsin for the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open.
They stopped at rest areas along the way so her dad could get some sleep, curling up next to Salas’ clubs to grab some shut-eye.
Salas, who earned her LPGA Tour card last December, tied for 28th and earned $15,028 at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. In a season in which she has racked up more than $70,000 in earnings, Salas can afford to do things like fly from event to event, but she chooses to spend time with her family. Calling them close-knit would be an understatement.
“It’s an opportunity for my dad and I to have some deep conversations about golf, about life and what’s going on,” said Salas Monday at Blackwolf Run as she prepared to compete in her third U.S. Women’s Open. “We talked about how our lives have changed dramatically in the last year. It’s surreal right now.”
Said Ramon: “I feel very excited, proud and happy. I can’t believe it – the way we’re living right now. I’m very, very proud of her. I enjoy every moment.”
Salas, 22, has accomplished what she set out to achieve since she was 7 years old, when she picked up golf clubs for the first time at the behest of her father, who has worked at Azusa (Calif.) Greens Golf Course, a public facility in the San Gabriel Valley, for 32 years. Ramon, 57, the head mechanic on the grounds crew, had tried to get his other children, Marvin and Susy, to pursue the game, but neither was interested. Lizette was a different story.
Although she didn’t immediately fall in love with the game, Salas “grew to love it.” Her father made custom clubs for her out of stray clubs that were left at the course.
Salas grew up in Azusa, a Los Angeles suburb where, according to a New York Times story, nearly 82 percent of the students in the high school Salas attended were categorized as “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Salas described seeing parents taking part in gang activities and fellow students bringing drugs to school and smoking them in the bathroom. She clearly could have chosen a different route, but her mother, Martha, 57, was there every day to pick her up from school and ensure that she got to the golf course to practice.
Salas had set goals, such as being good enough to play golf in college. That would materialize years later in a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where she helped the women’s golf team win a national championship her freshman year and earned All-America honors every year, the first time any female golfer at USC was a four-time All-American.
As she grew up and worked on her game, Salas ignored the naysayers who made fun of her for playing golf. Salas’ impish grin filled her face as she recalled using lessons in overcoming adversity learned from her parents, both of whom emigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in 1975.
“Even if you say I can’t do [something], I will do anything I can do to prove you wrong,” said Salas. “That’s the kind of person I am. I thank those people who made fun of me years ago. Now I can look back and say, ‘I told you so.’ I take great pride in that.”
Salas is well aware of her place in the game, following in the footsteps of Mexican-American Hall of Fame player Nancy Lopez and Lorena Ochoa of Mexico, another Hall of Famer. Salas said she doesn’t feel pressure to succeed and tries to concentrate solely on what goes on inside the ropes. She has the backing of her family; what more does she need, she asks.
“I think Lizette is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met,” said Jeff Chilcoat, president of Sterling Sports Management, which recently signed on to represent Salas. “She’s overcome a lot despite the odds. There is not one iota of entitlement on her part. We’re happy we made the selection of working with her. Her story is so uplifting. She has the kind of story that resonates with corporate America.”
Her story took a major leap forward when she attended LPGA Tour Qualifying School last December. Needing a birdie to get into a 9-player playoff for three spots, Salas converted. She was never nervous until the third playoff hole when she stepped over an 18-foot birdie putt.
“I knew where I stood, and what I needed to do to get my card,” said Salas. “That 18-footer looked a heck of lot longer than it was. I actually don’t remember my reaction until I saw it on tape. I never reacted like that before because I knew what it meant for me and my family. My mom and my dad were in tears.”
The experience helped soften the blow when the family discovered that someone had broken into their home while they were away. The thieves pepper-sprayed their dog before making off with jewelry and other items.
“It was the day before Thanksgiving,” said Salas. “They broke in through the back door. We were unlucky we got hit.”
Salas still has goals to achieve. Becoming the top-ranked player on the LPGA Tour is on her radar. She realizes it may take a few years, but she sums up her overall philosophy thusly: “Failure is not an option.”
Ken Klavon is an online editor for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.