Lizette Salas: Humble But Tough

Lizette Salas is where she is in the world because her brother didn’t want to play golf.

She sat down for a session in the LPGA Tour media center for this week’s CME Group Titleholders at TwinEagles Club in Naples, Florida. And she had quite a story to tell.

My dad has been working at Azusa Greens Country Club for 30‑plus years and he’s the head mechanic there.  It was my brother supposed to play but he didn’t like it, so I’m the youngest of three, so I went out there and just kind of took it as a hobby.

As she says, it wasn’t really a country club, they just called it that. It was a public course up against the San Gabriel Mountains that form the norther border of the Los Angeles basin. Azusa is about twenty miles northeast of downtown LA as the freeway flies. 

As I got older, I got better and that’s when I started loving the game.  We didn’t have a lot of money back then, so my dad did favors for the head pro and, you know, I barely had a pair of golf shoes and I didn’t know how to dress.  It was a very scary time just because I didn’t see many girls that looked like me or in my area that played golf, so it was a little shaky, but I didn’t care what anybody told me.

So she ended up playing mostly with the boys. And she didn’t just get better, she got really good. Good enough that she was recruited by USC on a full golf scholarship.

I went to SC and had a great four years there.  We won the national championship in ’08 and I was four-time All American.  So, I mean, if somebody were to tell me that back then, I would probably tell them you’re crazy because I like to stay humble and I don’t like to think of myself as any better than anybody else.  I just took it for what it is and try to make every day better.  Now I’m here on the LPGA and living my dream.

It’s becoming increasingly rare for really good college players to stay all four years; everybody wants to get out there and be about seeking their fame and fortune on the Tour. But not Salas.

I have always — it’s always been in my mind that I was going to stay in school.  Both my parents, it wasn’t a choice, I had to stay.  USC’s a really private school, prestigious, big time history.  So it was hard at the beginning, but I think staying four years and grinding it out and learning so much not just on the golf course but in the classroom, it’s really helped me be more mature.  It’s helped me appreciate what I have and to really just go for it.

You know, I kind of feel like an old rookie being 23 and all these other girls are in their teens or barely 20 years old.  But I don’t regret anything and I do wish a lot more of these young girls would go to school, and really, that’s the time to learn and that’s the time to make mistakes.  I made several and so I just — it’s just what they feel, I guess.

That was my first and foremost goal when I was a child is that I knew golf can get me into school.  I was the first person in my family to graduate from college and I think that’s another reason why I stayed.  I wanted to win four national championships and that’s why I stayed.

My coach, Andrea Gaston, recruited great players, so I thought it would be great to just play with them and help them make me better.  I think I was ranked No. 1 when I was a sophomore, and if anyone asked me if I was leaving, I said no, are you crazy?  I’m not going to leave right now.  At that time I didn’t feel like I was ready for the Tour.

So I graduated in four, on time, which is a big thing for me, and went out on the Futures [now the Symetra] Tour for a couple months, didn’t play so great.  But I went into Q-School and I got my card that way.  I don’t regret any day or event in that process.

In fact, one of the toughest achievements of her golf career came in that first attempt at Q-School. And it came in the thing everybody tries to avoid, a playoff. But not just any playoff; a nine-way playoff.

I think I was in 21st or just outside the Top 20 and I made a birdie on the final hole to get into a nine‑way playoff.  So I just went straight to the putting green and I knew it was going to come down to putting.  I didn’t know the whole playoff situation, so they came up to us and they’re like okay, there’s nine of you.  Then we asked how many spots are there and they said just three.  We’re like oh, shoot.

And so I went in the second group, birdied the first hole, about a six‑footer.  Birdied the second hole, which is a par 4, about a three‑footer.  Then two girls ahead of me eagled 18, so I was tied with two other girls.  I had a little lengthy 18‑footer and the hands started shaking and I knew what I had to do at that moment.  My caddie and I picked a line and that’s where I hit it and it went in.  All I heard was my mom screaming, so yeah, that was for birdie, yeah.  I wasn’t too happy with my approach shot, so I knew I had to make that 18‑footer.

I look back and I just think to myself how did I do that?  Something in me came out that day or those three holes that showed that I really wanted to be on Tour and that I deserved to be on Tour, and that everyone called me Miss Clutch for a while and that was nice to get attention.

But I knew coming into this season nobody really cares how I got on Tour, nobody cares about those three clutch putts.  As I got through the year and got more comfortable, I really look back at that and say, you know, it happened for a reason, and if that didn’t happen, my rookie year would probably be a little different, a little more shaky, not so comfortable and not knowing which events I’m going to be in, so I’m very thankful.

Thankful, indeed. She’s only had one Top-10 finish in her rookie year, but she only missed two cuts and has been so consistent in her successful starts she’s made $222,000. And as she said in this session, she won’t be flying coach on those long international flights anymore.

In Thursday’s first round she shot 4-under 68 and is T6. As her fledgling career gathers steam, it should be interesting, not just because of who she is as a player, but who she is as a person.

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