COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. On Saturday afternoon, Ramon Salas, a 63-year-old Mexican-American, was standing just inside the entrance to the lavish clubhouse at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. Salas was a giddy and proud father, and for good reason. His youngest daughter, Lizette, was even par and tied for sixth after 36 holes at the U.S. Women's Open.
A few weeks ago, Lizette became the first person from the family to earn a college degree. As a reporter listened, Ramon described the against-all-odds journey that he and Lizette had traveled from the cart barn at the daily-fee Azusa Greens Country Club in California to this national championship.
"It's awesome, incredible," Ramon said with a huge smile. "It is a dream."
It is the American dream come true.
In 1973, Ramon and his wife left behind their impoverished lives in Zacatecas, a city in central Mexico, and emigrated to America. They didn't know each other, nor did they speak English, but both happened to come to the U.S. around the same time. They also both settled in Azusa, outside of Los Angeles, and they soon met and began dating. Within a few years, they were married.
Ramon did odd jobs for his first few years in the U.S. In 1981, he got a full-time job fixing golf carts at Azusa Greens.
"I painted the carts, fixed the motors, changed the tires, whatever they needed," he says.
Ramon fell in love with golf and dabbled as a player in the little free time he had.
He saw the riches the game could yield, so he brought his first child, Marvin, to the course with the hope that he'd become a great player.
Marvin had no interest.
Then Ramon, who by now had been promoted to chief mechanic in Azusa's maintenance shop, brought Lizette to the course. She was seven. Ramon couldn't afford to buy clubs, so he built his daughter a set using shafts, grips and clubheads from his workshop at Azusa. Lizette played in sandals.
"I didn't know golfers needed special shoes," she says.
Ramon arranged for Azusa's head pro, Jerry Herrera, to give Lizette lessons, which he paid for by doing odd jobs around Herrera's house.
"Lizette was timid at first," says Herrera. "But after a year or so, she got very good and fell in love with the game."
By age 10, Lizette was excelling in junior tournaments around Los Angeles. A few years later, she was playing in national AJGA events and doing well in those too.
In her senior year of high school, Lizette won the 2006 California schoolgirl title.
"I spent time around Tiger Woods when he was a junior, and I said he'd be the best in the world," says Herrera. "Lizette is also supremely talented and will someday be the best woman in the world."
USC gave Lizette a full scholarship, and four years later she became the first Salas family member to earn a college degree, majoring in sociology. She was also the first woman golfer in Trojan history to be a four-time All-American.
Last month, Salas turned pro and joined the Futures tour, where she made the cut in each of her first three starts and had two top-10s.
Salas is keenly aware of the sacrifices her parents made for her to pursue golf. Ramon used to work seven days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day, to earn vacation time to chaperone Lizette to tournaments. When Ramon couldn't get away from Azusa, Martha would take unpaid leave from her job helping Mexican immigrants as an instructional aide at the Azusa Adult School. A few years ago, the Salas's were strapped for cash to pay golf bills, so Martha sold a plot of land in Momax, Mexico, that her father had given to her as a gift so she and Ramon could build a home for their retirement.
"My parents have done everything for me," says Lizette. "I owe them everything."
Lizette isn't motivated only to make good on her family's sacrifices. She also wants to create opportunities in golf for poor children, which is why she volunteers with San Gabriel Junior Golf. Perhaps most important, Lizette wants to promote her Mexican heritage in the golf world.
"I consider myself a Mexican-American and I'm very proud of that," says Lizette, who recently got a call from Nancy Lopez to offer encouragement. "With Lorena gone, I'm the only woman out here who has that identity and it's very important to share it."
It's unlikely that Lizette will hoist the U.S. Open trophy this week, but she doesn't seem overwhelmed by being in the penultimate threesome for the third round. Part of her success this week can be attributed to guidance from Greg Puga, her caddie. Puga is a longtime friend from Azusa who has similar credentials: he grew up poor, is of Mexican heritage and is a great golfer.
Puga won the 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur and played in the 2001 Masters, and for the last few years he's taught golf and been a fledgling tour player.
"I'm working as a favor for my good friend," says Puga. "I look forward to watching Lizette achieve her dreams."