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A bad back had this veteran tour pro considering retirement in 2023. Now, she’s got a different goal in mind for 2024

March 20, 2024
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Lizette Salas was hoping to make a sixth straight Solheim Cup team in 2023, but a bad back cost her a shot. The chance to return in 2024, however, has he motivated as she returns to play.

Dustin Satloff

PALOS VERDES ESTATES, Calif. — The dreaded R-word popped up last September for the first time in Lizette Salas' 13-year LPGA Tour career. After the 34-year-old spent months away from competition on medical leave due to back pain, the hyper-competitive Salas briefly thought retirement was imminent while watching the Solheim Cup from afar for the first time in a decade. The glimmer of internal doubt fueled Salas' recovery efforts, as she grinded her way back to play only 50 miles away at this week’s Fir Hills Se Ri Pak Championship, her first LPGA start in eight months.

"It's been a little bit of a roller coaster," Salas said during a Wednesday pre-tournament press conference at Palos Verdes Golf Club. "Probably been through probably some of the toughest challenges physically and mentally of my entire career. Learned a lot about myself, my body, and I learned a new level of fighting just to get back out here."

Salas' debilitating back issues started four or five years ago, but the pain started catching up to her last May. That’s when doctors recognized Salas had multiple disc issues as well as muscle problems. In the short run, she took a month-long break to give her body rest, including going to her cousin's graduation in crutches to alleviate her pain.

Salas returned in June and she pushed through to a T-20 finish at the U.S. Women's Open. But the day she got home from Pebble Beach, her pain reached a breaking point.

"My body just decided to shut down," Salas explained. "It was pretty scary. I don't wish that on anybody. It's not only a physical pain but a mental pain. You go through this process, like what did I do wrong, what could I have done better. It's a lot of self-analysis, a lot of figuring out what had happened and how can we not only overcome this pain, but not have to deal with it over and over."

Salas bowed out of defending her title (alongside Jennifer Kupcho) at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in July. She initially felt optimistic after the first few months of rest, believing in September she could start playing again in the fall Asia swing. Her team quickly recognized that it was more aspirational than in reality, given where Salas' body was, as it took three months of experimenting with various treatment programs before seeing any improvement.

Then came several grueling moments for Salas. First among them was with a phone call from U.S. Solheim Cup captain Stacy Lewis in late August, formalizing the expected outcome that Salas would not be a pick. Salas maintained her high self-belief in response and asked Lewis to keep her in the circle for the 2024 Cup.

Separate from the physical ordeal she was enduring, and the disappointment of the Solheim Cup, Salas then was hit with the mental trauma of the passing of her uncle and multiple teachers. While she watched the U.S. team play in Spain late at night on TV from home, the possibility of hanging the clubs up entered her mind for the first time.

"What's great about my team is they shut that [retirement thought] down real quick," Salas said. "That is not going to happen. My parents, my nieces and nephews, they're like, we don't want you to stop playing. And I don't want to stop playing obviously."

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Salas' back issue forced her to miss defending her team title at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational with Jennifer Kupcho last July

Dylan Buell

Salas turned around from that low point by taking a trip with her parents to her father's hometown in Zacatecas, Mexico. It brought Salas back to her family's roots, with memories of her golf journey pouring in from her Dad driving her to junior tournaments and working extra shifts at their hometown golf course to get her lessons, providing the foundation for her 13-year LPGA career.

"It just hit pretty hard just to see where we've come so far," Salas said. "It's like I can't give up yet. Just to see how much they've fought for me. … I'm going to get emotional, I can't let this go right now."

Salas' extended time away from the LPGA led her to reflect on her approach to golf. The two-time LPGA winner's fire burned bright on the course, with a hyper-focused attitude putting high expectations on herself. While Salas still eyes winning again on the LPGA and making a sixth Solheim roster, she now carries a tempered inner confidence emerging from the turmoil of physical and mental grief of her recovery back to the LPGA, granting herself grace as she gets back into the groove of playing on tour.

"I wouldn't be sitting here if I didn't believe that I had the capability of performing with the best in the world," Salas said. "So just very lucky, thankful, and we'll see what happens."