Lizette Salas is an All-American golfer
Notwithstanding the tee shot in the water on No. 7 that knocked her completely out of contention, this is the sort of week Lizette Salas used to dream about when she was sleeping in a pickup truck at minor tournaments.
So she will not win the U.S. Women's Open Sunday at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton. So what. Salas has been in much tougher spots. The daughter of Mexican immigrants grew up in Azusa, Calif., where gang violence is much bigger among young people than golf is. If you get on the wrong side of the former, you get no Mulligans.
When she earned her LPGA Tour card two years ago, enduring a nine-way playoff, Salas said, "Good things like this don't happen to girls like me where I come from." Heading into the third round of the Open Saturday, she was the best American. Every week on tour, she is the best American story. Given the drowsy state of women's pro golf in this country, the LPGA could use a whole lot more sagas like Salas' -- a made in the USA, red, white and blue-collar drama.
American women's golf could use more minorities, of course. More important, this peanut stand can't forget how the late hockey coach Fred Shero used to say that Soviet players were great, but North American players had something extra; they play with heart. Salas plays every round right from the heart.
"My story is a little different than if I had had parents who are members at a country club or something like that. Just having their support and looking back at the journey and the process, I go into every tournament like it's my last," she said. "Especially at a major championship, especially the U.S. Open, I try to have no regrets and really just dial in every shot whether it's for bogey or for birdie. I just love the atmosphere. My background just makes me that much more appreciative."
Appreciation came hard in the third round, which had grown shaky through the first six holes and drowned with her tee shot on the par-3 seventh, where the pin was placed right at the front, near a lake. She dunked her tee shot and made double-bogey 5 on the way to a front-nine 40. She made two more doubles on the back and by the end of the day she had recorded a 10-over-par 82. After three rounds, she is tied for 25th at 6 over.
Hey, golf has its ups and downs, as she learned when she took up the game at 7. Her father, Ramon, the head mechanic on the greens crew at Azusa Golf Course, let her hit some balls and she liked it. She still says she lucked out because her older brother hated golf, giving her the chance to get lessons.
Not that Ramon and his wife, Martha, an elementary schoolteacher, could pay for lessons. Ramon offered to do odd jobs and auto maintenance for club pro Jerry Herrera in exchange for Lizette's golf tips. "First of all, we're very good friends," Ramon said near the 18th green at Sebonack the other day.
Lizette was a whiz in junior tournaments and on the high school boys golf team. She was a four-time All-America at USC, a program with which she remains close. She is a mentor to golfers such as freshman Annie Park of Levittown.
"She's just a great person," Park said. "She has a great game. She hits her shots so pure and so straight, I'm like, 'I wish I could be like that.' It looks like she's just having fun out there. She's calm."
Before Salas began making a decent LPGA living (she tied for first at the LPGA Lotte Championship and lost in a playoff), she played the minor Symetra Tour. Her dad drove her in a 2006 Toyota Tacoma pickup. Lizette got to sleep in the cab, Ramon slept in the back with the clubs.
Ramon still travels the road to events. He was in Arkansas last week and drove to Long Island from there -- this time in Lizette's 2007 Toyota Corolla. "Took me two days," he said, adding that his wife accompanied him this time. "I like driving."
He also likes watching his daughter. "She has got a good heart," he said.
Maybe she will become the heart of American women's golf. America could do a whole lot worse.