For a 22-year-old, Lizette Salas -- currently in the top five of the LPGA rookie-of-the-year rankings -- shows a remarkable amount of maturity in discussing the finer points of her game.
"I hit the ball pretty straight and I've gained distance over time, but I'm not really a mechanical player," she said about her golfing strengths. "I have great feel, so I tend to go a bit more on instinct."
It seems to be working for her. Salas made the jump from the LPGA Futures Tour last year -- a feeder series -- to the full LPGA Tour this season after winning a nine-woman, three-hole playoff in Daytona Beach, Fla., in December. The win, in which she birdied all three holes, earned Salas the final full-status LPGA playing card for 2012.
"It's like a dream," she said. "I grew up watching these women play on TV, and now I am out here with them. I am still working on my confidence -- making myself believe that I deserve to be playing at this level."
Girl loves golf
If golfing with the greats intimidates her, Salas hides it well. After all, she's had a lifetime of practice learning to fit in, even when she felt like she didn't belong. Growing up in Azusa, Calif., Salas picked up her first club at the age of 7 when she followed her father, Ramon, to his job as head mechanic for the maintenance crew at the local golf course. When it became clear his little girl had a special talent for hitting balls, Ramon volunteered to do extra work for the club's head pro if he would set aside some lesson time for Salas.
"At first, I loved the game because it meant I got to spend more time with my dad, since he worked there," she said. "But then that turned into loving the game itself, especially for what it teaches you about discipline and focus. I love that it's an individual sport -- you are in total control of the outcome, good or bad."
There was also the fact that golf had very few physical limitations -- people of all sizes and shapes could play with equal expectations of success.
Then again, the game was not always so diversified when it came to ethnicity. Although Salas' neighborhood in Azusa was predominantly Mexican-American, she was alone in that respect out on the golf course. The disparity in income and opportunities between her friends at home and those at the club was glaring. According to the New York Times, "nearly 82 percent of the students in the high school Salas attended are categorized as 'socioeconomically disadvantaged.'" Teenage pregnancy is high. Crime is also rampant: 59 gang-related indictments were handed down in Azusa in 2011, according to the paper. Salas' own house was broken into twice. Yet Salas and her family have stayed, even after her fledgling winnings on tour might have allowed them to move to a slightly safer neighborhood.
"I've lived in the same house my whole life," Salas said. "Coming back to this place keeps me grounded. It reminds me that life is not all about rainbows and roses. It's about people struggling every day to survive."
Seeing the economic depression of her town pushes her to work harder, she said, not just for the money but for the chance to prove that the young people of Azusa have a choice when it comes to their future. "This is my chance to show my community what's possible, that there is another way," Salas explained. "Maybe I can start a small movement."
She would not be where she is today, Salas stressed, without the support of her mother and father, with whom she is very close. Both her parents came from the same region of Mexico (her father, Ramon, arrived in the U.S. in 1973), but they did not meet until they were in the United States. They have worked to give Salas every possible opportunity to pursue golf, but also emphasized the importance of education. When Salas graduated from the University of Southern California last year, she became the first person in her family to get a college diploma.
After graduating, Salas set her sights on working her way up the pro ladder, starting with the LPGA Futures Tour. Without any sponsorship or financial support, she crisscrossed the country for events, stretching her tight budget even tighter. Salas and her father found a way to make it work: Ramon took a leave of absence from his job and drove Salas hundreds -- sometimes thousands -- of miles to tournaments in his truck. Three times, they crossed the country for events. Frequently, the duo would pull over at rest stops on the highway to sleep for the night, saving money however they could. Ramon also acted as Salas' caddy.
"It was a lot of sacrifice for everyone," she said. "It definitely wasn't easy on my family."
Now that she's playing at the top level, Salas is determined to make the most of this opportunity.
"I try not to look too far ahead," she said. "I try to live in the moment each day, being the best player I can be."
The game is mostly mental, she acknowledged, so learning to focus and not get distracted is key. "You have to believe you'll make the shot or you'll never make it," she said. "It's not being cocky, but you have to be confident."
To stay relaxed, Salas thinks about her breathing or runs through a series of mental exercises to put her in the right frame of mind. Long gone are the days when she worried about not fitting in with the other players on the course.
"Now I know it's just about putting a ball in the hole," she said. "You do that well and it doesn't matter what your background is. The game is what people remember."