She’s one of the shorter hitters on the longest course in women’s major history. But don’t let those numbers fool you. Lizette Salas’ game is made for this AIG Women’s Open.
For starters, she hits it straighter than a rifle shot with the kind of trajectory that shrugs off wind and rain. That shot shape makes up for the lack of carry. When you’re dead in the middle of a links fairway, the ball rolls a long way. On Friday, for example, Salas hit a couple of drives in the 270- to 280-yard range, which is 30 yards longer than her season average. She didn’t get stronger or faster in the last couple of weeks. In fact, five weeks in Europe, she’s a little tired. But that’s just what links golf will do for you. Find the firm fairways and distance won’t be a problem. However, if you get a little bit sideways, cavernous bunkers will lead to bogeys or worse.
Salas had only one bogey on Friday, the par-4 third, a long one. She followed that up with back-to-back birdies on 4 and 5 and two more on the back nine, including a great one on 18, the hardest finishing hole of this year’s major-championship schedule. The Barry Burn, a small tributary flowing out of the Sidlaw Hills, snakes through the final fairway twice and while also guarding the right edge. Salas hit a hybrid from the fairway that barely covered the burn before running onto the green, leaving her an 18-footer that she drained to shoot her second-consecutive 69. She’s one shot out of the lead going into the weekend.
“I just switched to a new putter a few days ago and I'm starting to roll it a lot better,” Salas said. “I'm also using a greens’ book this week just to really make sure I'm on the right path. And, again, I'm not really getting in trouble off the tee. I did yesterday, which cost me a few shots. But my long irons and hybrids are really solid right now. I think that's what's keeping the momentum going.”
Salas loves this major. But for a final-hole birdie by Hinako Shibuno, she might have won it in 2019. And she finished second to Nelly Korda two months ago at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. More than that, Salas is happy – with herself, with her game, with life in general. You see it in the smiles. You sense it in her demeanor and the way she carries herself.
“I think (the week of the KPMG) changed my expectations of myself,” she said. “Honestly, I have not been performing or putting as well as I did that week, which has really been frustrating. So, it's been a lot of mixed emotions. My swing, my ball-striking's been on point. It's just the putts haven't been dropping. It hurts a little bit to know that I could still hit the shots but I can't finish the job.
“I probably should have taken a break after KPMG. I kind of pushed myself a little too much physically and mentally to continue competing. But you know, this is all a learning experience. Now I know like what my body and my mind can take, or my mental game can take.
“We are just trying to have some fun and finish on a good note this week.”
That good note could well be hoisting a trophy. It is an event Salas loves. And one in which she has great memories.
“It's definitely special thinking back to 2019,” she said of the runner-up performance to Shibuno. “I had a really good finish. And I can play well on links golf. I finished sixth in St Andrews in 2013 and John (Killeen, her current caddie) was on the bag. I feel good. Six weeks on the road, five weeks in Europe, so just trying to conserve as much energy (as I can) and finish on a good note.”
She’s also got another goal: playing well enough to earn one of U.S. Solheim Cup captain Pat Hurst’s final picks, which will be made after the conclusion of this AIG Women’s Open. Salas, who won the deciding point for the U.S. team at the 2017 Solheim Cup in Des Moines, Iowa, sits 15th in the standings.
“There's a lot at stake here, a lot of spots are up for grabs,” Salas said. “Obviously, I want to secure my spot and represent the red, white and blue. But at the same time, I just have to focus on what I can control. It's a good practice for what's coming ahead in a few weeks, so yeah, I think Team USA is using this as a good practice.”