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MORNING BRIEFING : ON GOLF

Salas' golf trajectory isn't exactly par for the course

March 22, 2012|DIANE PUCIN
  • Lizette Salas is the first Latina from Los Angeles County to make the LPGA Tour.
Lizette Salas is the first Latina from Los Angeles County to make the LPGA… (Christina House / For The…)

Whether or not Lizette Salas wins an LPGA Tour event, hers is already the American success story that so often seems part of a hazy, dreamy past.

Salas, 22, of Azusa, is the first in her family to earn a college degree. She went to USC on a golf scholarship and was so inspirational that she was chosen to give a commencement address at the USC athletic department graduation celebration in May.

She is also the first in her family to become a professional golfer.

Last week, in her first main tour event, Salas finished tied for 22nd at the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup in Phoenix. She earned $15,230, and considering that she and her father, Ramon, traveled to minor league tournaments last year in the family truck, often sleeping in rest areas instead of hotels, the money matters.

This week Salas will play in the Kia Classic, which begins Thursday at La Costa Country Club.

But what matters more than the money to Salas is proving that success can be had in a sport that should have been untouchable for a squarely built young girl who was the daughter of immigrants, who lived in a city where the population is 68% Latino, where the sport played on the streets is soccer and where Salas competed on the high school boys' team because there were no other girls interested.

She learned to play golf at Azusa Greens Country Club, an undistinguished public layout where Ramon worked as a mechanic.

Head pro Jerry Herrera once asked if Ramon had any children who might want to take golf lessons.

Of his three it was Lizette who showed interest. And talent. She would follow her father around when he worked, making practice swings with a rusty iron. Herrera said Lizette had an immediate aptitude for the game.

"Her swing is natural," Herrera said. "Her work ethic is remarkable."

Salas said she didn't think of her heritage as a hindrance, and it also isn't something she plans to ignore.

"I was brought up as a little girl with Spanish as my first language," Salas said last month as she prepared to make her LPGA debut.

"I give thanks to my parents, I'm a proud Latina and I'm not scared to play that role. I see how Lorena Ochoa has helped golf grow for women in Mexico and I want to do the same here for Latina girls. You don't need to be at a fancy country club or anything."

Salas is happy to represent the Latina Golfers Assn. In January, she spoke to the Roosevelt High girls' team and it wasn't to give tips on what club to hit or how to craft a fade shot.

"Girls like me don't know the etiquette or what clothes to wear," Salas said. "At first I didn't know how to dress. I'd come to lessons in sandals. Jerry told me I had to have golf shoes. I didn't know where to buy them."

Azucena Maldonado, who formed the LGA, said Salas' natural grace as a speaker and natural talent as a golfer send a message.

"It's that anything can happen," Maldonado said.

In her USC commencement speech, Salas said, "Where I come from, people don't expect much from a young person, especially a Latina."

Taking deep breaths, she said she was scared to go to USC as a golfer because she didn't know whether she could fit in. Eventually Salas was appointed team captain. She also graduated.

There were times, Salas said, when she would hit whiffle balls off a dusty backyard into a garage wall. Sometimes her mechanically talented father would make her a club from discarded ones at the golf course.

Salas qualified for the LPGA Tour in a dramatic way last fall. She birdied the final hole of regulation in the LPGA qualifying tournament to get into a three-hole, nine-woman playoff for the final tour spot. She then birdied all three extra holes.

Ramon and Lizette's mother, Martha, both broke down in that moment.

"Nine girls for one spot and this is what happened? We don't have anything but hard work and hope and at that moment, yes, I cried," said Ramon who still works at the golf course.

He gives thanks to Herrera, who first taught his daughter in exchange for Ramon's extra work at the course when money for lessons wasn't available. He thanks a system that rewarded his daughter with a full college scholarship. He thanks his daughter for not only playing golf but getting a degree.

"This story," Ramon said, "it really is the American dream."

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diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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