Lizette Salas, a daughter of Mexican immigrants who has a long hard road to the LPGA, shoots a 3-under 69 in the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday, grabbing a share of the lead along with fellow Americans Cristie Kerr, the 2007 Open winner, and Brittany Lincicome.
KOHLER, Wis. — Although plenty of athletes have used sports to lift themselves up from difficult backgrounds, Lizette Salas’ path to the pros isn’t the sort of story that’s often heard in golf.
The 22-year-old Salas shot a 3-under 69 in the first round of the U.S. Women’s Open on Thursday, grabbing a share of the lead along with fellow Americans Cristie Kerr, the 2007 Open winner, and Brittany Lincicome.
Salas is the daughter of Mexican immigrants from Azusa, Calif., a city with a history of gang issues outside Los Angeles. With help from her family, she used golf to earn a scholarship to USC — and now, a spot on the LPGA Tour and a share of the Open lead.
With her family on hand to cheer her on this week, Salas sees her play as a tribute to her parents.
“My dad still works long hours out on the golf course, my mom also,” Salas said. “So this is just my way of repaying them for all their sacrifice and all their work they’ve done for me.”
Third-ranked Ai Miyazato, the Japanese star coming off a victory Sunday in the LPGA Tour event in Arkansas, was a stroke back along with 17-year-old Lexi Thompson, Jennie Lee and Beatriz Recari. Seven players — including No. 5 Na Yeon Choi and No. 6 Suzann Pettersen — shot 71 in the nearly 100-degree heat and high humidity that turned Blackwolf Run, a challenging 6,944-yard course in central Wisconsin, into a boiler.
Defending champion So Yeon Ryu finished with a 74. Se Ri Pak, who won the Open at Blackwolf Run in 1998, shot a 72.
Top-ranked Yani Tseng shot a 74. She would become the youngest player to complete a career Grand Slam with a victory this weekend.
Michelle Wie also opened with a 74, and second-ranked Stacy Lewis shot 77.
Cheyenne Woods, Tiger Woods’ niece, had a 75.
Salas began playing at age 7 thanks in large part of her father, Ramon, who is the head mechanic at a golf course and offered to do odd jobs for a local pro if he was willing to teach Salas how to play.
“He didn’t have that much money to pay for lessons because they’re really expensive,” Salas said. “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. Just been swinging ever since. Haven’t stopped.”
As Salas began playing in tournaments, she and her father would drive long distances and sleep in the car to save money. Even now that Salas is a professional, the family still sometimes travels the country in its high-mileage 2006 Toyota Tacoma.
“We like that truck,” Salas said. “It’s red and it has ‘USC dad’ on it. I think it has over 90,000 miles 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 good, it’s been a fun adventure, and just going to keep going and making more experiences.”
Salas’ hard work, and the sacrifices her family made, paid off when she earned her spot on the LPGA Tour by winning a nine-way, three-hole playoff for the final qualifying spot.
“My dad is like, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ But my mom is like, ‘No, no, no, no. You’re going to go out there and you’re going to get that card,’” Salas said. “And just birdie, birdie, birdie. That 18-footer on the last hole, I knew where I stood. I knew I had to make it. It was probably the slowest putt of my life, but it was great. All the emotions of all the hard work we’ve done as a family and all the sacrifice my dad has done and my mom. It was just a great moment for us.”
Salas began with a birdie on the 348-yard, par-4 first hole, with a 9-iron approach that left her with a 7-foot putt. It was one of her four birdies on the day. Her only bogey came on the 375-yard, par-4 11th.
The other leaders have an edge in terms of experience.
Kerr is a 14-time winner on the LPGA tour and the 2007 Open winner. But she was winless in 2011 after winning at least one tournament in each of the previous seven years.
Kerr, who birdied three of her first seven holes and made it through the day without a bogey, feels a different level of energy at the Open.
“This is where I want to perform,” she said. “This is the stage I want to perform on.”
The long-hitting Lincicome has five career LPGA tour wins, including a major win in the 209 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Going into this week, breaking par didn’t seem possible at Blackwolf Run.
“Obviously today shooting 3 under I have to kind of rethink my strategy, and obviously under par is very doable,” Lincicome said. “If you can keep it in the fairway, hit it in the right spot on the green and I made a couple long putts today which was nice.”
Beyond the challenges posed by the course’s layout, plus the heat and humidity, players also had to stay focused during rounds that took as long as six hours to complete.
“Maybe just the heat, and it was slowing a few people down,” Thompson said.
Several players said the heat affected their concentration.
“You’re not thinking 100 percent clearly all the time,” said Paula Creamer, the 2010 winner who had a 73.
Meena Lee, in the group at 71, acknowledged that the heat was getting to her.
“It was just too hot for me,” Lee said, through a translator.
Singh takes lead at Greenbrier; Tiger is eight shots back
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Vijay Singh and Jeff Maggert sent reminders that they’re still able to compete with the younger crowd.
Singh had his best round in six months, shooting a 7-under 63 on Thursday in the Greenbrier Classic to take a one-stroke lead over Maggert, Jonathan Byrd and Martin Flores — and leave Tiger Woods eight shots behind.
“Gosh, I don’t know where that came from,” the 49-year-old Singh said. “I’ve been playing pretty good golf for a while, but just never got any scoring going. But today seemed I hit it close and drove the ball really well, hit a lot of greens and made some nice putts.”
Last week at the tough layout at Congressional, only seven players posted first-round scores in the 60s.
Sixty-two players broke par Thursday on the Old White TPC course, with the greens far more forgiving than last year when they were reseeded and Scott Stallings won at 10 under.
Woods wasn’t one of them. Coming off a victory Sunday in the AT&T National, he struggled with his putter in a 1-over 71 in his final tuneup for the British Open in two weeks.
Saying the greens rolled slower than those in his last three tournaments, Woods needed 31 putts on the course he played for the first time Wednesday.
“I was a little bit off with my game, and on top of that I didn’t have the speed of these greens at all,” said Woods, the tour leader this year with three victories. “I missed literally every single putt high today.”
Singh had his best effort since an 8-under 64 in the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.
Singh is playing in his ninth tournament in 10 weeks with two top-20 finishes in that span. Last week, he also got off to a fast start but shot 81 in the final round and tied for 49th.
Something clicked Thursday, when he made six birdies on the back nine, finishing with four straight.
“Hopefully it keeps going,” Singh said. “I don’t feel tired. I feel really energized. I’ve been working really hard on my game, so it’s nice to see something happen.”
Singh earned the last of his 34 PGA Tour wins four years ago and will be eligible to join the Champions Tour in February.
Maggert, a year younger than Singh, has had to earn his PGA Tour card through qualifying school in two of the last three years. He hasn’t won since the 2006 St. Jude Classic and missed the cut in more than half his tournaments this year, including last week.
Although he feels he has a disadvantage off the tee compared with younger players on the 7,274-yard Old White, Maggert used strong iron play to make four birdies on his front nine.
Asked to describe his birdie putts, Maggert joked, “At my age, it’s hard to remember — short-term memory’s going.”
He didn’t need a big measuring stick — three of his six birdies overall were from less than 10 feet in a bogey-free round.
“I feel really comfortable here,” Maggert said. “There’s a lot of guys out here in their 40s, late 40s, that can really play some good golf still. So it’s not surprising to see some of the old guys up on the leaderboard.”
Byrd has five career wins and already has five top-10 finishes this year. He hadn’t played since the U.S. Open and fought through a nagging cough to finish birdie-bogey-birdie Thursday.
Flores had a rare bogey-free round that was his second best of the year. He spent the majority of 2011 on the Nationwide Tour, now called the Web.com Tour.
Playing alongside U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson and Steve Stricker and starting on No. 10, Woods birdied two of his first three holes in his first Greenbrier Classic appearance.
On the par-5 17th, he drove into a hazard, took a penalty stroke and three-putted from 20 feet for double bogey.
Phil Mickelson matched Woods with a 71. Mickelson vowed to focus more on golf this time after taking advantage of the resort’s numerous amenities with his family last year and missing the cut.
“I didn’t play that bad (Thursday),” Mickelson said. “But I made some mistakes there that were just a little sloppy.”
Simpson, J.B. Holmes, Andres Romero and Garth Mulroy shot 65. K.J. Choi was among a group of seven at 66. Stallings birdied his final three holes for a 67.