Lizette Salas couldn’t hide her tears.
With a national television audience watching on the Golf Channel, the second-year pro dunked her approach shot on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff against Suzann Pettersen in the water fronting the 18th green at the LPGA LOTTE Championship in Hawaii last April, a shot that cost her the tournament and left her still searching for her first career LPGA win. The tears came during her post-round interview on the 18th green as Salas fought to choke back her emotions, and everyone, even Pettersen, felt bad for the well-liked golfer.
It was one of her biggest disappointments from the 2013 season, a breakout year in which she made 23 of 24 cuts, finished 15th on the money list, notched seven top-10 finishes and crossed the $1 million mark in career earnings. Salas also represented the United States in the Solheim Cup, going 1-0-2 in the three-day event.
But she didn’t wallow in self pity or let that runner-up finish haunt her. In fact, Salas had the right mindset from the start, putting things in perspective and using the playoff loss as motivation for the future.
“I just want to win,” Salas said after the tournament. “I don’t play here just to travel the world. I’m here to win championships, and I’m here to change the world of golf.
“So, if people have something bad to say, then they can say it to me. I’ll gladly take criticism, but that’s not going to stop me from achieving my goals. I’m here to fight, and that’s why I went to USC, we fight on.”
Fast-forward a little more than a year, and the USC grad is the Tour’s newest Rolex First-Time Winner. She played superbly at the Kingsmill Resort in Williamsburg, Va., last week, earning a four-stroke victory over a trio of players at the Kingsmill Championship Presented by JTBC and removing the moniker as one of the LPGA’s best players without a victory.
The tears that came on Sunday were those of joy and relief.
“Oh, my God, it is a dream come true,” Salas said in her post-tournament press conference. “I’ve been working so hard for this. I’ve had so much support over the years throughout my career, and to finally break through my third season out on Tour, I’m just so happy.”
Salas was doused with champagne by friends and reveled in the delight of realizing her dream, clutching the winner’s trophy as if it could be snatched away at any minute. But it wasn’t, and Salas will forever be known as an LPGA champion.
“A lot of emotions right now,” said Salas, the first person in her family to graduate from college. “I wish my parents could have been here to witness it, but I know they were glued to the TV. I think the whole city of Azusa (California) was glued to the TV.
“All my junior golf kids were pulling for me. My alumni, my USC fans, just everyone. I just felt the energy today from them. I wanted to win not just for me, but for them.”
Former world No. 1 Yani Tseng, who was part of the three-way tie for third, was happy for Salas as well.
“She’s a great player,” Tseng said. “She hit the ball very solid, and she is very consistent. Very happy for her to win a tournament.”
Salas dedicated the win to her father, Ramon, who began teaching her the game at age 7. She said she even brought out an old putting tool in Virginia that her father used to teach her how to make sure her line was true, a tool that obviously worked for the 24-year-old Californian.
Mentored by Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez, who took Salas under her wing in recent years, Salas gives back to her community by teaching the game to California youth. The daughter of immigrants, Salas is a leader in the Latino community and is dedicated to making an impact on other people’s lives, attributes that no doubt help make her even more beloved by her peers and fans.
Well-grounded and level-headed, Salas doesn’t anticipate the win changing her as a person.
“I don’t think it’ll change me at all,” said Salas, who moved to 10th in the Rolex Women’s Golf World Rankings thanks to the win. “I think it’ll just get me more excited to win more championships and to be a major champion.”
Considering her talent and drive, there’s no reason to believe she won’t do exactly that.