Lizette Salas: The Shroud

At the beginning of the final round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Inbee Park had a 3-shot lead over second-year player, Lizette Salas, and they were paired together.

It was a big day for Park. Winner of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open, she hadn’t won another major in the intervening five years. Shooting 3-under on the day, she cruised to her bookend major around three regular Tour wins.

Salas, on the other hand, went the other way. She had one of those days where the moment overwhelmed her consciousness and she shot 7-over. 

I’ve been interested in Salas ever since I first became aware of her in “Lizette Salas: Humble But Tough,” where she described her upbringing, how she got into golf and her career as a four-time All-American at USC — full disclosure: I’m a USC alum.

So I was delighted to get an opportunity to see her play in person at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix. So often when you know you’re going to see a recent college grad, you expect to see a game that’s good but not fully developed. So I was really impressed by what little I saw of Salas. Not only does she have a wonderful, efficient swing, she hits the ball solidly and in play — she has impressive speed through the ball. But the other thing that caught my attention was her physical bearing, her presence. She sort of carried herself with a mature, “old soul” countenance.

So I was really surprised that she had played so well in the first three rounds to get herself into contention and then fell apart on Sunday. It just didn’t seem like that would have been in the cards given what I had seen. But she was philosophical about it:

Well, obviously I’m not very pleased with it.  Very disappointed in myself.  But it was one of those days where it could have gone from bad to worse, and starting off with a double wasn’t in the game plan. But everyone is going to have those days where they’re just not going to be able to score, and bad luck, it was the last day of a major championship for me.

You know, I have to look at the bright side, and learning from Inbee, there’s a reason why she’s No.4 in the world.  It’s just a learning experience for me, and I’m really upset, but I just have to look back and say look how far I’ve come from last year to this year.

There’s lots of positives, and you just have to — I just have to dig deeper and figure out what happened today and just the shots weren’t there.

As she said, it began with a double bogey on the 1st hole; with Park’s birdie, it was a 3-shot swing and an instantaneous 6-shot deficit she was never able to fight her way back from:

The second shot, it just came a little too quick.  Throughout the day I was just really anxious and hit a lot of pulls today and was — it was just not myself today.  But I did all the preparation I could.  I hit the ball great on the range.  It just doesn’t happen.  I couldn’t control everything today, and I tried to finish with a birdie, and unfortunately it didn’t happen.

This is very similar to what happened to Billy Horschel in San Antonio yesterday when he felt like his legs turned to jello. You can’t quite get in touch with your body and nothing you try during the round seems capable of bridging the gulf back to your normal feelings. Which is to say, normally you don’t even notice body sensations, you just play like you always do.

Having extensive personal experience with these sensations during my Monday qualifying days, it’s like a shroud descends over your senses. And in trying to deal with “getting it back,” your tempo quickens as Salas noted. When you get quick, the swing isn’t able to unfold normally, the timing is obviously off and the shots start to spray.

I used to try to recover by trying harder; wrong. Trying harder usually means more tension throughout your body, especially your hands and arms, and all that does is make the shots worse.

Finally realizing that something is going on — as Salas did after her round — is the beginning of being able to deal with it. As I noted in my post on Horschel:

With attention, however, it comes up, it gets recognized for what it is and it goes away when the player’s mind descends, instead, into the moment, i.e., the target, the shot and hitting that shot at the target. And that takes the same kind of practice as anything else.

Salas will be just fine. She’s too accomplished and too good.
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