Currently 42nd in the Rolex Rankings, American Lizette Salas is looking for a big year in 2016. The 26-year-old was a four-time All-American at the University of Southern California, making her the only USC student-athlete to earn the honor all four years of her degree. After graduating, she played on the Symetra Tour for a year before gaining full status on the LPGA tour in 2011. The 2015 U.S. Solheim Cup team member was a big contributor to the team’s comeback, winning 3&1 over Europe’s Azahara Munoz. Back from injury and armed with an improved swing, Salas is determined to take more joy from her experience on Tour this season.
Let’s start with your 2015 season. How would you rate your performance on Tour last year?
I would rate my 2015 performance just a little above average. I critique myself really hard. It definitely was a lot of learning experiences, from being injured to being in contention at Meijer, and also being in the mix for the Solheim — and obviously, bringing back the cup as well — I learned a lot about myself. I learned what it’s going to take for me to improve and what’s really going to take me to that next level. And I learned that family is much more important to me than I thought, so this year my parents are going to come out a lot more.
That’s awesome. It will be nice to have them along for the ride.
So given your injuries and struggle to close, what would you say was one of your biggest challenges in 2015?
I would say understanding my body and how much the season takes [a toll] on my body. Even though it is my fifth year, I’m still learning as I go, and just learning what suits me and what’s going to make my game go to the next level. I’ve worked with my coach Joe Hallett for a year now, and just the transformation in my golf swing and how to make things simple again. It was a good test last year.
I saw you grinding on the range all day at the Coates Golf Championship with your coach. What’s something you’re looking forward to in 2016?
I think the biggest thing that I’m looking forward to for 2016 is the ability to smile again. I’m trying not to think of being an LPGA tour player as a job, I like to think of it as a lifestyle that I’ve worked for my entire life, and really just looking forward to the relationships that I have with my caddie, or with my coach, or with my strengthening coach. Just those relationships and really embracing each challenge, I think that will make my season a much happier time out here. Also having my family out supporting me, and just enjoying tour life.
Right, because I guess sometimes the pressures of this being an amazing job, and it being what you love to do, it can put a lot of pressure on you if you’re injured or you’re surrounded by immense talent rising around you.
Yeah. My first three years on Tour, I kept progressing and I kept getting better and I finally got my first win in 2014 at Kingsmill, so after that, you have to reassess and ask, ‘What’s going to top that?’ You have to understand that you’re not always going to play at your best, and I’ve gone through my experience of injuries already, and you know, it’s a difficult time. That’s when you have to rely on your team to build you back up. Having those experiences while also trying to have fun, it takes a lot from you, emotionally and physically. But I have a lot of faith in myself and faith in my family and my team to pull me out of those tough times, and I have a lot of friends out here, and we’re trying to make this an enjoyable experience for everybody.
Yeah, it does seem like there’s a lot of camaraderie on the LPGA tour. Does it affect competition at all, being so close with the girls but ultimately competing against them week in and week out?
Down to the wire, we’re playing against the golf course itself and we do have really strong connections with all the players. We understand each other, we respect each other as competitors and also as young ladies, but the camaraderie that you create on the LPGA tour is nothing like anything you can experience. A lot of the girls I’ve played with, I played with in college and junior golf, so it’s just like back in the day. You’re just cruising, playing golf, but now it’s on a bigger stage and it’s for a bigger cause.
Speaking of a bigger stage, golf is going back to the Olympics this year. How do you think having Olympic golf back will affect the sport at large, and more specifically, the women’s game?
I think having golf in the Olympics is beneficial not only to women’s golf, but sports in general. It’s about time that we have that international recognition to tee it up against the best in the world and to be considered one of the top athletes in the world. It’s something we’ve been waiting for for a very long time and I think it will not only encourage women’s golf across the world, but I think just golf in general, to have the next generation pick up a golf club and to start swinging away.
Absolutely. And as with any international travel that you experience on Tour, there are sometimes concerns about health and well-being while you’re abroad. Have you been paying attention to word about the Zika virus, and does it worry you to potentially be exposed to something like that?
On the LPGA tour, we get emails of the security status, or anything health-wise, to prepare us for the upcoming event. It’s nothing that we’re not used to. I think the LPGA does a really good job of preparing us physically for these types of events, but obviously we do take it into consideration.
Let’s go back to the Solheim Cup. What was it like to be a part of that winning team?
Being a part of a winning team was amazing. The fact that we were led by hall of famer Juli Inkster and Pat Hurst, Nancy Lopez – my idol growing up – Wendy Ward…just the strong bond that we had in 2015, it was just indescribable. And to finally get my first full point when we needed it the most, I was just overwhelmed with joy and I just broke down in tears. The fact that it’s a two-year process to get on the team, and that we were so far behind and it was the biggest comeback in history, it was phenomenal. And the fact that my parents were both there from the start to the end, wearing the red, white and blue, to finally bring that cup back after a very long time…it was a great, great experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Well, this might be difficult for you then. If you had to choose between a Solheim Cup win, a gold medal and a major, which would you choose?
Oof. Wow. I mean, God that’s such a hard question. I’d probably have to pick the Solheim, just because you’re on a team of 12 and there’s so many things that can go on during the event. You have alternate shot, you have four-ball, then you have the singles matches…I don’t think it gets any better than the Solheim. And to play for your country, even though it is a team sport, it’s all about what you do and what it takes for you to get that extra point up on the board for your team.
Sometimes the PGA Tour overshadows the LPGA tour, simply because of its size and reach. How do you as a player help grow the game of women’s golf?
What I take from that is, I start from where I come from. I start in my hometown of Azusa, California. I started my junior golf foundation about six years ago. That’s my base, and that’s where I want to start, in Southern California, to create awareness of how golf can change your life. If it wasn’t for my dad working at a public golf course, I would not have picked up a club and I wouldn’t be here today. So it just takes that first introduction to a child of a young age — or any age — that could start a whole different process than they expected. I think if everyone can start from where they’re from, or somewhere that connects to them, that will change the game dramatically. The PGA [Tour] is a little bigger than us, but I think we can do a better job of going back to our roots and really establishing a great foundation there.
If there is one thing you can take away from your experience on the LPGA tour over the last five years, what would it be?
It’s only my fifth year so far and I’ve made so many friendships, so many tight relationships with the girls, and really just have just come to respect one another, from their nationality to the language they speak. I majored in sociology so coming from different backgrounds really fascinates me, and understanding what it took for them to get here and respecting them at the same time. I would really take away all the friendships that I’ve made.