JOHNS CREEK, GEORGIA | Lizette Salas had the round of her life on Sunday at the 2019 AIG Women’s Open, scorching Woburn for a 65, a brilliant effort that fell one stroke short of Hinako Shibuno, who birdied the last hole to win. On Thursday, Salas was equally impressive, handling Atlanta Athletic Club in five-under-par 67, one stroke better than Charley Hull in the first-round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Driving the ball brilliantly – she missed only two fairways on the demanding Highlands Course – and playing with renewed confidence, Salas was bogey free. Starting on the back nine, she made birdies on Nos. 12, 17 and 18 then came home with birdies on Nos. 4 and 5. She was also rock-solid with the putter, using it only 26 times.
“It was definitely not easy,” she said about the major championship conditions on the historic venue. “We started with pretty wet conditions this morning, but the greens are rolling extremely pure. I had a really good warmup. I was really confident coming into this week, and I think my game really suits this golf course and kept it boring.”
Hull, who teed off in the afternoon, also played the back nine first and got to 4-under-par with a birdie on No. 8 – her 17th hole – to finish at 68. She had two bogeys on her card but recorded six birdies – four over her final eight holes.
“I feel like I'm in a good head space at the minute, just out there having fun,” said Hull, feeling the effects of pandemic separation from her family in England. “I'm going home Monday, so I can't wait to see my friends and family. I've been suffering a little bit with like being out there, being away from my family for so long.”
Two strokes back at 69 are Jeongeun Lee6, Jessica Korda, Austin Ernst, Dani Holmqvist, Yealimi Noh, Xiyu Lin and Alena Sharp. Nelly Korda, who is pursuing her first major after a win last week at the Meijer Classic, is in a large knot of players at 70, including major champions Ariya Jutanugarn, In Gee Chun and Patty Tavatanakit.
Salas, 31, seems to play her best on difficult courses. Her LPGA Tour victory came at the Kingsmill Resort in 2014 and she has a good recent history in the Women’s PGA. While missing the cut last year, she was T-5 in 2019 and T-8 in 2018. And she arrived at Atlanta Athletic Club playing her best golf in some time over the last five events.
She was T-6 last week in the Meijer Classic, T-23 in the U.S. Women’s Open, T-17 in the Bank of Hope Match Play hosted by Shadow Creek and T-5 in the Pure Silk Championship presented by Visit Williamsburg as she sprints for a spot on the U.S. Solheim Cup team.
“At the beginning of this year, we started with a goal, with a plan, and sometimes that plan kind of gets worse before it gets better, and probably right before Pure Silk, I really analyzed my game and really talked with my coach and my trainer and what we really need to do because we're running out of events, and that Solheim Cup is right around the corner,” Salas said.
Lizette, who represented the U.S. in the last four Solheim Cups, is No. 19 on the points list, with the top seven getting an automatic spot. She is also No. 45 in the Rolex Rankings and could gain one of the two spots available that way. Also, her team spirit and solid play in past Solheim Cups likely have her on the short list for one of the three wild card picks by captain Pat Hurst.
“I know these courses are tough,” she said. “I believe that I could play well in these big events and contend, and I think that's more so the shift in everything is that self-confidence, and I'm not afraid to be out here anymore. It's fun. John's been doing a great job,” she said about returning to caddie John Killeen, who worked with her when she won at Kingsmill.
Salas also has a remarkable Drive On story. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she learned the game when her father Ramon bartered his skills as a mechanic in exchange for golf lessons for Lizette. She then used her skills to earn a scholarship to the University of Southern California, where she was a four-time All- American.
While adversity is part of her background – Ramon drove her to Epson Tour events in his pick-up truck, where they at times had to sleep – Salas, like many people, found the year of the pandemic extremely challenging.
“I really didn't like myself in 2020, and I think with the whole COVID and not being able to work and have golf as my outlet, that really hit hard,” said Salas, who played 13 tournaments in 2020 and had only one top-10 finish, falling from No. 26 in scoring average in 2019 to No. 52 last year, her worst since joining the Tour in 2012.
“I'm happy where I am right now and I'm looking forward to the next few days,” Salas said.
So much about golf is a family affair for Salas. When Lizette finished her first Solheim Cup in 2013, her mother Martha brushed away a tear and said, “You don’t know what it means for two Mexican immigrants to see their daughter represent the United States.”
At Woburn, they almost saw their daughter win a major championship. That’s a dream that could become a reality this week at the KPMG Women’s PGA.