|Lizette Salas Making History on the Green
By Nancy De Los Santos-Reza
All eyes in the gallery are on the beautiful young Latina standing in the tee box, golf club in hand, her ebony eagle eyes focused on the small flag waving in the distance that marks the goal two long football fields away. She takes her stance behind the ball, and pulls the club above her head in a perfect arch. A smooth swish cuts through the air as the club head races towards contact with the small, dimpled golf ball. Then, WHACK! The white orb is lifted into the air and sent flying like a bottle rocket as it speeds 200 yards across the green field. For seven seconds the gallery of golf fans, friends, and family hold their collective breath as their eyes follow the ball effortlessly sailing through the air, and landing gently with a light ‘thud,’ mere inches from the flag post and the hole. The applause is sprinkled with, “Great shot!”, “Si Se Puede”, “Fight On Lily”.
Lizette Salas smiles. At 23 years old, she is right where she’s supposed to be on the green, on the golf course, and in life. And yet, she stands out in the field of female professional golfers like a bronze Aztec Goddess in a sea of blond Vikings. The Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) is overwhelmingly Caucasian, and while there are a few other Latinas in the league from Colombia, Spain, Mexico, and even Paraguay, Salas is the only LPGA Tour Player who is an American born Latina. She’s also the only Mexican American currently a pro woman golfer. While there have been less than a handful of American born Latina LPGA members, she’s the first Mexican American to compete on the LPGA’s golf tour at the level of golf icon Nancy Lopez who brought excitement and passion to the game over 30 years ago. In the proverbial passing of the torch, or in this case, passing of the driver, it’s impossible to watch Salas on the course and not recall the incredible career of Lopez. “When people see Lizette play and win, I’d like to think they’re reminded of me,” says Lopez, “And I think she’ll bring some of those fans back to the LPGA and introduce the game to a whole new generation of golfers.”
Anita Ybarra is one of those enthusiastic fans coming back to the game. She had not attended an LPGA event since Nancy Lopez retired. Her excitement is contagious. Ybarra has followed Salas at the KIA and KRAFT NABISCO Tournaments since her rookie year, walking behind her 18 holes at a time proudly flaunting her Nancy Lopez and Lizette Salas buttons. “I see many similarities between Nancy and Lizette - primarily their accessibility to the common-folk fans,” says Ybarra. “Nancy and now Lizette are demonstrating that with hard work and determination, anything is possible. Lizette is clearly providing kids with hope, opportunity, and inspiration - in the same way that Nancy obviously inspired Lizette.”
While many professional golfers are born with a silver club in their hands, welcomed into a privileged life of country clubs, childhood golf lessons, and golf vacations, Salas’ road to the game of golf took a completely different approach. If you’re familiar with the game, you might say she started in a hazard, landed in a sand trap, and had to hit a great recovery shot to get to the green. The layperson’s translation is she and her family had very humble beginnings, worked hard to get the assistance and guidance they needed to make golf a reality for Salas, and now all rejoice in seeing her succeed as one of today’s leading women golfers.
Lizette Salas at the Azusa Greens Country Club. Photo by Patricia De La Rosa.
Golf legend Nancy Lopez has become a golf mentor to Lizette and is one of her biggest supporters. (L-R) Martha Salas (mother), Nancy Lopez, Lizette and Ramon Salas (father).
USC graduate Anita Ybarra, shows her Lizette Salas and Nancy Lopez buttons. Ybarra credits Salas for winning her back as an LPGA fan after Nancy Lopez retired. Photo by Azucena Maldonado.
Lizette's parents, Ramon and Martha Salas congratulate her after a great tournament round of golf at the LPGA Kia Classic in Carlsbad, CA. They have been faithfully attending her tournaments since she started playing golf at the age of 7. Photo by Roxanne Haynes.
The story begins with her parents, Ramon and Martha. They both immigrated from the same town in Zacatecas, Mexico looking for more opportunities and a better life, she as a teacher, he as a car mechanic. “My dad came to the United States when he was only 18. He didn’t have any family here, but he did have a few friends,” Salas says, “My mom came with her parents. My parents didn’t know each other in Mexico. They met while working in the same factory, fell in love and got married.” Ramon and Martha made the town of Azusa, California in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains their new home and began their family. Azusa is a picturesque, working class, small town on the outskirts of Los Angeles with its share of inner-city struggles. But since Ramon got a job as a mechanic at the Azusa Greens Country Club, this would be their home for his wife and their three children. When each of his children was about seven years old, Ramon took them to the golfing practice range to see if they liked the game. “Dad wanted us to play because he felt the game provided discipline and was fun,” she adds. Susie, Lizette’s older sister was more interested in soccer, and her older brother, Marvin, preferred football. Salas enjoyed sports, especially basketball, “As the youngest kid, I’ve always been competitive. I always wanted to win. I loved basketball, but I wasn’t tall enough to play well. And, my parents felt golf offered a sport where I couldn’t be injured.”
When Ramon placed a golf club into her hands and she took a swing at the ball, something wonderful happened. She knew, her dad knew. She was a natural. There was a connection made; a connection that would forever change her life, her family’s life, and usher in a new generation of golfers to a sport that many thought to be elitist or out of bounds.
Her dad knew his youngest child was interested in the game, but he also knew that even youngsters gifted with a propensity to play the game needed lessons. Expensive golf lessons. This wasn’t anything they could afford on his salary. Ramon introduced Salas to the golf course’s head pro golfer, Jerry Herrera, and offered a barter situation. In exchange for golf lessons, her dad would service Herrera’s car, and being the great fix-it handyman he is, work on Herrera’s residence fixing anything that needed repairing. The deal was made on a handshake, and Salas had her first professional golf lesson.
Herrera remembers those first lessons, “She showed promise early on, but I was most impressed by her sheer love of the game and determination to stick with it despite the ups and downs. Even as a little girl, Salas was always a hard worker. She was willing to put in the time and effort necessary for improvement,” he adds. “She puts a lot of her soul into her game, and possesses the inner strength to keep positive. That’s a sign of a winner.”
Herrera says, “From high school to professional there have been a few struggles. Financially, for one. Golf is not a cheap sport. There are costs everywhere you go.” When she first began competing nationally as an amateur, Salas and her father, to save on expenses, had little choice but to travel to competitions in his Tacoma pick-up truck. They criss-crossed the country three times traveling from tournament to tournament. Instead of paying for a professional caddy, Ramon took over that role, too. At the end of a tournament, he would drive to the next competition while Salas slept in the back of the truck snuggled next to her golf clubs.
Soon colleges were scrambling to offer Salas scholarships. “Most of the major universities had packages, but the University of Southern California and Cal State Long Beach offered full ride scholarships. “I was leaning towards Long Beach when my mom stepped in with her thoughts.” Salas’ concerns were two-fold. First, while she was a good student, her high school wasn’t known for academics.
“My school had a high rate of dropouts. There was a lot of gang activity,” she expressed. USC was a prestigious academic school with a great golf program. She felt they didn’t really know about her background. At Long Beach, Salas would be considered a superstar on the golf team. “I was afraid knowing I’d have to work my way up at USC. But Mom knew best, “She knew I could do it. She believed in me and said, ‘Please. Choose USC.’”
Following her mother’s advice, Salas became a Trojan. She adapted well at USC, majoring in Sociology. Her freshman year at USC, the golf team won the National College Championship and for the next four years, Salas was named All American Athlete in golf, a first in USC history. Upon graduation, the Athletic director invited Salas to share her story at the Athletic Commencement. She told them her simple yet touching story, “I don’t come from a typical golf family,” she says. “My parents are immigrants. My dad made my golf clubs. We didn’t have money. My parents had to sacrifice a lot, but that just gave me more motivation to succeed.”
“When I first heard of Lizette and her father, it hit home for me,” says Lopez. “Our stories are very similar. My father owned an auto repair shop. He worked very, very hard and saved money so that I could play on the amateur golf tour. Ramon’s chest blows out when he talks about Lizette. He’s just so proud of her. I used to see that in my dad.”
Salas as a young golf student with her first golf coach, Jerry Herrera, at the Azusa Greens Country Club.
Salas learned to play golf at the age of 7 at her neighborhood public golf course, the Azusa Greens Country Club.
The Latina Golfers Association (LGA) introduces Latinas to the game of golf for their professional development and personal enjoyment. (L-R) Gilda Pettite, Olivia Rios, Azucena Maldonado, Julie Baez and Dr. Mercedes Nares.
Salas considers Nancy Lopez a super star, an idol. “When you talk to her, she is one of the most humble people you’ll ever meet, so heartwarming and giving,” Salas states. Lopez has become a mentor to Salas, offering sage advice from someone who’s been in the spotlight and knows what it takes to win. “I do my best to encourage her,” states Lopez. “Playing a four-day tournament takes an immense amount of focus. Knowing where you stand on the leaderboard is a must. Lizette told me she was too nervous to look at the leaderboard. I told her feeling nervous shows you care.”
Today, Salas takes Lopez’ advice wherever she goes. “The best advice she gave me is to be myself, and to embrace the leaderboard,” she states. “Knowing where I stand in the field of players brings out my inner fighter, and I use that information to figure out what I need to do on the next hole to climb that board. Her advice has helped me become more assertive in a passionate way.”
Herrera points to her commitment to the game and her tenacity, “Lizette has shown remarkable presence of mind, focusing on the shot at hand and blocking distractions, and the pressure that goes along with playing among the best in the world in the public eye.”
In today’s LPGA, Salas stands out not only as an amazing young player, but also as a symbol of the future of golf, “I’ve grown to take the role as being the only Mexican American on the LPGA,” she says proudly, “At first it was overwhelming to have all the eyes on you, but I embrace it and use it to my advantage. I’m very proud to be a Latina and represent two cultures. I love being a Latina and being a golfer. It’s a two for one deal and I like it!”
“The LPGA motto is “See Why It’s Different Out Here,” says Salas adding, “The goal of the LPGA is to grow the game in every aspect. So if I’m bringing another Latina or any young girl regardless of ethnicity to the game, if I can get a golf club into a young girl’s hands – we did our job.”
As for the future of golf and Latinos, we’re just beginning to see the impact Salas will have on the game. “I’ve seen a lot more young girls and young Hispanic girls on the tour, spectating and watching the female players, and I definitely hear a lot more Spanish in the gallery, which is nice,” she continues, “I think golf hasn’t been exposed to our community,” Salas ponders, “There are not many public golf courses in our neighborhoods, and there’s a stereotype that golf is a sport only for older, wealthy white men. Latinos just don’t think it’s a game for them.”
But Salas is here to change that. “There’s a little bit of truth to that, but today there are so many youngsters and ethnicities being introduced to the game. But there’s still not as many Hispanics picking up golf clubs or going to the golf range, in comparison to Asians and African Americans,” she says, “But I’m trying to break that stereotype showing kids in my neighborhood that it’s okay to pick up a golf club. It’s good to think that golf is cool.”
Azucena Maldonado, the founder of the Latina Golfers Association, (LGA) is an early supporter of Salas and encourages Latinas across the country to pick up the game at any age or level. “Golf is the great common denominator in business, in social circles, in sports, period,” she states. “When you’re a golfer you open up a whole world of not only business contacts, but social contacts as well. You meet the nicest people on the golf course; it’s just a great game for everyone.”
Maldonado met Salas and her family when Salas was a sophomore in college. Salas and the LGA have been linked since its inception in 2008. The LGA honored Salas and her parents at the LGA’s inaugural kick-off event. They also featured Salas’ coach Jerry Herrera and the man who currently carries her bag, her caddy, Greg Puga. In addition, they’ve held fundraisers for Salas when she turned professional. Maldonado recalls, “I was so impressed with her poise and grace. Her family is a great support to her game, and I wanted the world to know that Latinas were once again taking their rightful place in the winner’s circle. I’m convinced Lizette is the new face of golf in America.”
Based in Southern California, the LGA hosts golf-clinics for women to learn the fundamentals of golf. LGA members Elizabeth Urtado-Holzheauser and Alysa Rodriguez attended their first golf clinic in Houston, TX. Photo by Juan A. Maldonado.
As an attorney, Gracie Saenz, member of the LGA, utilizes golf as a business tool. Photo by Juan A. Maldonado.
A big fan and supporter of the LGA, Salas thinks golf is a fun game, and believes the LGA makes the game so welcoming to everyone. The LGA has expanded the availability of golf to Latinas across the country and they’ve taken Latina high school golf teams under their wing. “Azucena has done a great job of teaching women that golf is fun, it’s good exercise, it’s good for business, and it’s a great social game,” Salas states. “And LGA members are some of my biggest fans.”
Many LGA members follow Salas on the professional tour, offering encouragement with shouts of “You go, girl!” “Viva Lizette!” Maldonado recalls one of Salas’ first professional competitions at the KIA in La Jolla. “The LGA had a number of Lizette fans in the gallery, but we were all brought to tears when we saw the all-Latino greens maintenance crew following her on the course. They had asked for time off to see this young Latina play on the very course they had groomed. It was beautiful. Amazing. She’s single-handedly bringing golf to our community.”
One of the perks of being an LPGA Tour Player is the opportunity to meet and play golf with celebrities during each tournament’s pro-am the day before the tournament begins. Salas recently had the opportunity to play with Golden Boy and world-class athlete, Oscar de la Hoya who is an avid and accomplished golfer in his own right. “I think having Lizette on the LPGA tour is wonderful. The impact she can have with inner-city kids as well as the impact she can have on golf on a worldwide-stage is amazing,” he states. “She’s going to be winning and it’s going to be a treat to see her on top and watch her climb that ladder along with impacting a whole lot of people along the way.”
The Salas family along with Herrera and Puga founded the San Gabriel Junior Golf Program based at Salas’ home course, Azusa Greens Country Club. Each week dozens of youth gather to learn the fundamentals of golf for the very affordable price of $1 per lesson. Not only are they immersed in all aspects of the game but an important aspect of the program includes academic tutoring and awareness about higher education and scholarships. The program’s goal is to provide scholarships to their participating youth. “It’s a work in progress to get away from the stereotype that golf is not a game Latinos can play, but I’m taking it one hole at a time,” Salas adds.
Salas shakes her head as she remembers, “Someone once told me, ‘Mexicans don’t play golf’ and ‘Golf’s not in your heritage.’ When I turned pro, there were a few folks who didn’t believe I was going to make it on the tour. I take those comments and turn them into motivation to keep fighting. I just say, keep them coming. I’ll prove them wrong. I let my golf do the talking.”
Salas is one of the coaches at the San Gabriel Junior Golf Program started by her father, Ramon, and her first golf coach, Jerry Herrera, at the Azusa Greens Country Club in Azusa, CA. Photo by David Sandoval.
The Golf Channel follows LPGA Tour Player, Lizette Salas, at the first major tournament of the year, the LPGA Kraft Nabisco Championship at the Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage, CA. Photo by Azucena Maldonado.
5 Tips to Get Started
Join the Latina Golfers Association at www.latinagolfers.com
. You will be able to participate in golf clinics, beginner golf lessons, and fun golf outings comadre style.
If you’re not in Southern California, go to the Get Golf Ready website at http://www.playgolfamerica.com/GGR/
and find a program in your area. GGR programs are designed for beginners and offer comprehensive golf lessons at affordable prices.
If there are no Get Golf Ready programs in your area, find a golf course that offers golf clinics for women. You can follow that up with group or private lessons. You can even take golf lessons at your local community college.
Learn Golf-Talk. Become familiar with the language of golf and the easiest way to do that is to watch the Golf Channel on television or online. This is the place for golf enthusiasts. You will learn who the top players are and when the golf season tournaments are played. Watch “Morning Drive”, a great show that highlights the world of golf M-F mornings.
Volunteer at a charity golf tournament. You won’t be playing golf, yet, but you’ll become familiar with how tourneys work and become comfortable with the environment of a fun business golf outing.
Golf – More Than Just a Game
By Azucena Maldonado, founder of the Latina Golfers Association (LGA).
Business tools in hand, head held high, I confidently make my way into an arena once reserved for the elite “boys club”, where business deals were sealed with a simple (hand shake) shake of a hand. It’s the new boardroom, formally reserved for men and now, a place where women can shine and gain entree to influence and power. And the best part about it is that it’s accessible to us all! It’s the best-kept secret ever – business golf. My new business tools are my set of golf clubs.Golf & Business Go Hand-in-Hand
It’s no secret that millions of dollars in business deals take place at golf courses everywhere. Sadly, women are missing out on their fair share of the business because we’re not out on the green where the deals are being sealed. Hermanas, in today’s business environment, women can’t afford not to play golf. There’s something sacred about the bond established among golfers. Simply put – Golfers are like Comadres. It’s a tight-knit community that, for the most part, is gender-and culture-neutral.
According to Leslie Andrews, author of Even Par: How Golf Helps Women Gain the Upper Hand in Business, it’s not how well you play golf, but that you play at all, “It’s really not the golf that matters, truth be told. It’s the secret club. It’s the secret language. It’s being in the game, being where decisions are made. And that means being on the golf course.” Former Vice President and CFO of Avon Products, Edwina Woodbury, says that in order to survive in the business world, many women have taken up golf, “How many business conversations and business decisions are made on golf day?”The Latina Golfers Association Is Born
I hope by now you’re convinced to give golf a try. It’s not difficult to get started. Really. The first step you should take in starting your new adventure is to join the Latina Golfers Association at latinagolfers.com. It’s free to join. It’s very rewarding to see how women’s lives can be transformed through golf. I’m committed to changing the face of golf in America and I want Latinas to feel at home on the golf course because we belong there! (That’s where we belong!)