Latina golfer joins the professional ranks

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By Marí Villa
Hawaii Hispanic News

HONOLULU, Hawaii — Lizette Salas began golfing by pure luck. Her father worked at a golf course and one day she had to accompany him. While she was there, she picked up a club and hasn’t put it down since.

In April, Salas came to Hawaii for the LPGA Lotte Championship tour. She is one of the few Latina professional golfers in the US. Salas, who grew up in Azusa, California, in a neighborhood with gangs, drugs, and crime, decided early on that golf was going to be her ticket out. She said her parents made sure she kept busy and off the streets.

She attributes her focus during her younger years to her mother. She said; “Mom dropped me off and picked me up from school every day.” When Salas was finishing high school the next logical step was for her to go to college. She received a full athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California. That is where she began to learn about balancing the demands of a full-time student and a full-time athlete. “If you’re not a student-athlete, you just can’t understand the amount of pressure,” she said about college and golfing.

Salas shared some of the lessons she learned in college. During her sophomore year, she tore her meniscus (knee injury) and sprained her back. She said: “This happens when you don’t stretch before hitting the balls and I wasn’t eating the right things. I was fortunate that my injuries didn’t require surgery.”

During the summer breaks, Salas would prepare herself for her career as a professional golfer by attending the mini-circuit tournaments. It was during the mini-tournaments that she realized two things: 1) that her father was determined to help her succeed; and 2) that getting to the pros would be the reward for all her hard work and her dads selfless dedication.

When participating in these mini-tournaments, her father Ramon would take time off from work and drive her across country to wherever she was competing. She said: “There were times when we saved money by sleeping in the car at rest stops.”

It was the tremendous, selfless and incessant dedication her father displayed then that gives her such a heartfelt appreciation for him now.

She said: “My dad was there every step of the way. In high school I played on the boys’ team and I could practice on the boys’ side or on the girls’ side. He wouldn’t allow to practice on the boys’ side because he didn’t want me to have any distractions whatsoever.”

She continued: “Since I was a junior golfer, my dad went with me to every single practice and every single event. For most of my appointments, he had to miss work and would then put in extra hours. He still works 6am to 7pm Mondays just to put in the time that he gave up to be with me. So it’s been a significant sacrifice and I just appreciate him so much. He’s also my caddy and we’ve developed a really close relationship. I just thank God that I have the best Dad.”

Salas is also about giving back to the community for many reasons. But one strong motivator is that she feels golfing has always been such an upperclass sport that she wants others in her community to have options in life. She said: “Graduating from high school was an accomplishment in my neighborhood. When I was young, I didn’t have role models I looked up to in my community. But I now feel I can do something about that and help change that situation, especially in my neighborhood.”

So Salas volunteers in the non-profit her dad and other pro golfers started called The San Gabriel Junior Golf. “The
organization is designed to give back to the kids in our community by expanding the range of options available to them and, hopefully, change their minds about their possible future choices.”

Salas says, “These are neighborhood kids, aged 7-17 and all different ethnicities. The organization just started
bringing in tutors for after school. Our goal is to get these kids into college. We want to give these kids options. Just because they come from a certain type of neighborhood, or are a certain ethnicity, doesn’t mean they’re not going to be able to move ahead.”

Salas graduated with her BA in Sociology in May and started her professional career in June. Why did she choose to become a professional golfer?

Salas said: “My family knew that it was my ticket out. The difference between a professional golfer and amateur golfer is that one gets paid.”

In order to get a ticket to play in the LPGA, Salas had to beat nine others in the last spot with three birdies and
three hole playoffs. It didn’t come easy during her final semester of college. But Salas is on her way to making her
dream come true.

Salas has more than just an ambition to be a professional golfer. In the Brazil 2016 Olympics, golf will be coming back as a sport competition after being absent from the Olympics over 100 years.

How does our young Salas feel about that?

Salas said, “I’m fortunate that my parents immigrated here in the 70’s and obviously gave us a better chance to succeed in life. They want me to apply for dual citizenship because it will open opportunities for me in Mexico.”

Salas has both the Mexican and American flag on her bag and says she already gets a lot of flack because competitors want to know which country she stands for. She says, “Mexican is my cultural heritage. We speak Spanish at home and eat the same as if we were in Mexico. It’s part of who I am. I’m Mexican at heart, but proud to be an American citizen.”

Asking Salas about trying out for both teams in the Olympics with a dual citizenship, she said, “That’s a hard question still, I just don’t know. There’s obviously a process I’ll have to go through, but if an opportunity to play is given to me – regardless of which of the two countries it’s for — I’ll take it.

She added: “Representing a country is an honor and I’ve been waiting for golf to return to the Olympics. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. But, I will have to be ready for comments and competition if I get chosen for the
Mexican team.”

Salas has the backing of her family, friends and colleagues. Here at the Hawaii Hispanic News, we wish her the best. We offer lots of love and prayers; and hope to see her at the 2016 Olympics.

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