KOHLER, Wis. – Although plenty of athletes have used sports to lift themselves up from difficult backgrounds, Lizette Salas’ path to the pros isn’t the sort of story that’s often heard in golf.
The 22-year-old Salas shot a 3-under 69 in the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday, grabbing a share of the lead along with fellow Americans Cristie Kerr, the 2007 Open winner, and Brittany Lincicome.
Salas is the daughter of Mexican immigrants from Azusa, Calif., a city with a history of gang issues outside Los Angeles. With help from her family, she used golf to earn a scholarship to USC – and now, a spot on the LPGA Tour and a share of the Open lead.
With her family on hand to cheer her on this week, Salas sees her play as a tribute to her parents.
My dad still works long hours out on the golf course, my mom also, Salas said. So this is just my way of repaying them for all their sacrifice and all their work they’ve done for me.
Third-ranked Ai Miyazato, the Japanese star coming off a victory Sunday in the LPGA Tour event in Arkansas, was a stroke back along with 17-year-old Lexi Thompson, Jennie Lee and Beatriz Recari. Seven players shot 71 in the nearly 100-degree heat and high humidity that turned Blackwolf Run, a challenging 6,944-yard course in central Wisconsin, into a boiler.
Defending champion So Yeon Ryu finished with a 74. Se Ri Pak, who won the Open at Blackwolf Run in 1998, shot a 72.
Top-ranked Yani Tseng shot a 74. She would become the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam with a victory this weekend.
Michelle Wie also opened with a 74, and second-ranked Stacy Lewis shot 77.
Former Fort Wayne resident Amanda Blumenherst shot a 75.
Salas began playing at age 7 thanks in large part of her father, Ramon, who is the head mechanic at a golf course and offered to do odd jobs for a local pro if he was willing to teach Salas how to play.
He didn’t have that much money to pay for lessons because they’re really expensive, Salas said. I didn’t have golf shoes. I didn’t know how to dress, nothing like that. They worked out a deal where my dad did handyman favors for them. My dad fixed cars on the side, and that’s how I got started. Just been swinging ever since. Haven’t stopped.
Salas’ hard work, and the sacrifices her family made, paid off when she earned her spot on the LPGA Tour by winning a nine-way, three-hole playoff for the final qualifying spot.
My dad is like, It’s OK, it’s OK.’ But my mom is like, No, no, no, no. You’re going to go out there and you’re going to get that card,’ Salas said. And just birdie, birdie, birdie. That 18-footer on the last hole, I knew where I stood. I knew I had to make it. It was probably the slowest putt of my life, but it was great.
The other leaders have an edge in terms of experience.
Kerr is a 14-time winner on the LPGA tour and the 2007 Open winner.
Lincicome has five career LPGA tour wins, including a major win in the 2009 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Going into this week, breaking par didn’t seem possible at Blackwolf Run.
Obviously today shooting 3 under I have to kind of rethink my strategy, and obviously under par is very doable, Lincicome said. If you can keep it in the fairway, hit it in the right spot on the green and I made a couple long putts today which was nice.