KOHLER, Wis. -- Lizette Salas was four days from her eighth birthday the last time Nancy Lopez had a chance to win the U.S. Women's Open. That was in July 1997, when Lopez -- in the twilight of her brilliant career -- ended up finishing second by one stroke to Great Britain's Alison Nicholas.
The Women's Open was the one prize in golf that Lopez never won; she was runner-up four times. And that '97 tournament, when she was 40 years old, was really her last chance.
But Salas is just at the start of her chances. The LPGA tour rookie joined past champion Cristie Kerr and Brittany Lincicome in an all-American top of the leaderboard after the first round of the Women's Open at toasty Blackwolf Run. All shot 3-under 69.
The temperature reached 98 degrees, and the heat index topped 100. But Salas still had a grand old time, joking with her caddie and keeping her spirits light. It's the way she prefers to play.
"I know it's four long days, and it's really hot out here," Salas said. "I was trying to stay cool and have fun and play the best golf that I can."
Sounds a lot like Lopez back in the day, doesn't it? Well, that makes sense: The Hall of Famer is one of Salas' idols. When Lopez dueled Nicholas to that near-miss in the '97 Women's Open, Salas had just started playing golf. Salas was an eager little girl introduced to the game by her father, Ramon, who had immigrated to the United States from Mexico.
No wonder, then, that Lopez reached out to Salas last year when the youngster was beginning her pro career. How much Salas must have reminded Lopez of herself and her own father, Domingo, who also came to the United States from Mexico and mentored his daughter in golf.
"I don't know how she got my number, but she called me right before my debut on the Futures tour last year," Salas said of Lopez, who grew up in New Mexico. "Just so happened she texted me not too long ago, asking me to call her. I met her in Phoenix as I debuted on the LPGA tour. And she's still my role model."
Salas, who will turn 23 later this month, is too young to have seen much of Lopez's career. She was long from being born when Lopez energized not just the LPGA but the entire golf world with her success and effervescent personality as a tour rookie in 1978.
But Salas has familiarized herself with Lopez's achievements and the way she handled herself in the public eye. Lopez always had the crowd behind her because she always had a smile for spectators.
"She was just so loving to the fans," Salas said. "She's so bubbly and approachable. I think that's really important.
"The fact that she went out of her way to talk to me just shows how great she is to young golfers that are coming up in the LPGA."
Salas, from West Covina, Calif., got her start when her father, a mechanic at the Azusa Greens Golf Course, brought her to work and let her hit some golf balls.
"He was good friends with the head pro," Salas said. "And he didn't have that much money to pay for lessons, because they're really expensive. I didn't have golf shoes. I didn't know how to dress; nothing like that.
"They worked out a deal where my dad did handyman favors for them. My dad fixed cars on the side, and that's how I got started."
Now, to be frank, this isn't exactly the kind of story you hear every day on the LPGA tour. But once she got a chance, Salas proved to be a natural. She shot a 62 as a 15-year-old, was a high school state champion, and then was an All-American for four years at Southern California.
"I'm just fortunate to be here, and to be amongst the top players in the world has always been a big dream of mine," Salas said. "And just getting to USC was a big goal for us, for my family. Coach [Andrea] Gaston believed in me. I was just under her wing, listened, and now just on the LPGA, living the dream."
Salas, who has her 11-year-old niece in tow, drove with her dad here to Wisconsin from last week's tour stop in Arkansas. They came in the same pickup truck that took Salas across the country last year while she played on the Symetra [Futures] tour.
"Just gives us time to be together and talk about life, and how different our life has become," Salas said. "We like that truck. It's red, and it has 'USC dad' on it. We've had some great memories, laughed and shed tears in that truck. And I often slept in it. It's been a fun adventure."
As her score would indicate, Salas did pretty much everything well Thursday. She hit 13 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation, requiring 28 putts. This is her third go-round at the Women's Open, having missed the cut in 2010 and finishing 15th last year.
Of course, history is littered with first-round leaders of major tournaments; it's just one day in a process that can seem harshly different on subsequent days. But as her performance at this event last year in Colorado Springs, Colo., shows, Salas does know how to play well throughout the Women's Open.
And while her best finish thus far on the LPGA tour in 2012 is a tie for 22nd, she has only missed one cut. She has a grinder's resolve and a gamer's heart.
Salas said she was eager to talk to her family after her round. She knows they will keep her grounded.
"I'm sure they're going to be excited," she said. "But they're just going to tell me what happened today [has] happened. Let's just try to focus on the next three days; it's a marathon out here."
Considering she's had to come pretty far to get here, Salas has already proven that going the distance isn't a problem.