On The Tee With Lizette Salas
"Always surround yourself with positive people."
Two years ago, during her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, Lizette Salas looked up to find she had attracted an unusual cheering squad: Dozens of Latino men, dressed in matching work clothes, were following her from hole to hole. "Earlier in the day, my dad had introduced himself to a couple of the maintenance workers," she says. It might seem unusual to seek out the grounds staff amid the buzz of a tournament.
But it felt natural to Salas' father, Ramon, who has spent nearly 30 years as the head mechanic at a public course in Azusa, a working-class city east of Los Angeles. Word spread quickly among the crew that a mechanic's daughter was playing. "It was so cool," Salas says. "I felt like I had 30 dads watching me."
From the beginning, Ramon has played a key role in Salas' unlikely rise to professional golfer. She began to play at age 7, when Ramon brought her to his work at Azusa Greens Country Club; when her game showed promise, he struck a deal with the head pro. "I helped him with extra jobs, and he gave her lessons," Ramon says in Spanish. The youngest daughter of Mexican immigrant parents went on to become a high school state champion and a four-time All-American at the University of Southern California (and the first family member to graduate from college). "My dad was always there, always going above and beyond," Salas says. To qualify for the LPGA Tour, they piled into Ramon's truck, making cross-country trips and spending the night in the vehicle at rest stops when funds ran low.
All those years of sacrifice paid off in May, when Lizette, 25, won her first LPGA title, at the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia. "I was totally overwhelmed," she says, sounding overwhelmed all over again. Congratulatory phone calls poured in, including a voicemail from Nancy Lopez, another Latina who has become a mentor. "She was in tears," Salas says. Yet despite her status as a rising star, Salas still feels "like a normal kid." Back home in Azusa, a predominantly Spanish-speaking city, Salas helps run a golf club for juniors, which includes school tutors and seeks to support the next group of Latino golfers. "Know that anything is possible," she tells them. "Regardless of the negativity that might be around you, always surround yourself with positive people."