Lizette Salas, fellow Californians power U.S. early at Solheim Cup

Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to Lizette Salas' strong play on Friday, the U.S. jumped out to a 5 1/2-2 1/2 lead over Europe on the first day of the Solheim Cup.

WEST DES MOINES, IOWA -- When Lizette Salas was a kid, her father, Ramon, bartered vehicle repairs so she could take golf lessons in Azusa, California. He and his wife, Martha, Mexican immigrants to the U.S., sacrificed plenty so Lizette could pursue her golf dreams.

And she hasn't forgotten it, especially not as she was helping give Team USA a strong Day 1 lead at the Solheim Cup.

Competing in her third biennial event between the United States and Europe, Salas had the role of benevolent big-sister figure while partnering with fellow Golden Staters Danielle Kang and Angel Yin in two victories. Salas was a major reason U.S. captain Juli Inkster, another Californian, and the home side took a 5½-2½ lead.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Lizette Salas says she has waited six years to partner at the Solheim Cup with Danielle Kang, right, who hugs captain Juli Inkster after winning a match Friday. Now, Salas and Kang are showing they can succeed together.

As Salas was finishing up on Friday, she took a moment to reflect on her humble golf roots, a stark contrast to Des Moines Golf and Country Club, by getting a glimpse at her parents watching her achieve her dreams.

"I glanced at my dad on the last hole, and you can see a smile from ear to ear, like he was so proud," she said. "To have both my parents here, because they've been part of the journey with me and they've been through all the struggles and sacrifices, just looking at them reminds me how hard we all worked."

Only a different outcome by Paula Creamer, who lost a foursomes match with partner Austin Ernst, would have made it a better day for the California contingent. But given that the U.S. swept a session (four-balls) for the first time in Solheim Cup history and opened up a nice working margin, that defeat was just a blip.

After going 1-3-2 for the U.S. in the 2013 and 2015 Solheim Cups, Salas had to hustle to be in Iowa. "I worked really hard this year to work my way on to the team," Salas said. "I was almost dead last on that [points] list at the end of last season."

Salas, 28, is still seeking another victory to go with her win at the 2013 Lotte Championship, but she was energized when Kang, 24, a good friend, won the KPMG Women's PGA Championship in June to all but assure she would be on her first Solheim Cup team. Top-15 finishes in this summer's three majors did the trick for Salas so she could be part of what she'd viewed as an ideal partnership.

"I've been waiting six years for this," Salas said of being able to partner with Kang. "We knew just right off the bat that we'd be great at this."

She picked me up when I was down, and she had all the faith in the world in me. That's what a partner has to be, and I'm just so grateful and so proud of her.
Danielle Kang

Sent out in the second foursomes match Friday morning, Salas and Kang birdied the first hole and never trailed. Their opponents, Carlota Ciganda and Caroline Masson, pulled all square on No. 14, but the U.S. won the next two holes. With a 1-up advantage going to the 411-yard 18th hole, Kang missed the putting surface with her approach, leaving Salas a dicey chip from thick grass and little green to work with. Salas, in her sixth season on the LPGA, handled the third shot deftly, and Kang sunk the ensuing 10-foot par putt to give the team its first full point of the day.

"She picked me up when I was down, and she had all the faith in the world in me," Kang said. "That's what a partner has to be, and I'm just so grateful and so proud of her. She had so much positive energy. She kept her composure. And she didn't play like a rookie; she played like a major champion. I kept us in play most of the day, and hopefully I did my part."

If Salas had any doubt about her contribution -- and she shouldn't have -- it was erased quickly when she paired with Yin, 18, in a four-ball match against Ciganda and Emily Pedersen.

"They're a good mix," Inkster said between the sessions, "because Lizette is straight down the middle and Angel can bomb it. So we'll see how that works out."

Like Salas, Inkster need not have fretted.

Salas worked on her putting with one of her coaches during the brief midday break, attempting to get more feel in her stroke and use her imagination on the undulating greens. The tuneup paid off immediately, as Salas birdied the first, second and third holes to take an early lead.

"That was tough," Ciganda said.

It got tougher or the Europe pair when Salas added birdies on No. 5 and No. 9, shooting a 5-under 32 and boosting the side to a 4-up advantage at the turn.

Yin did what she can do, launching a few wonderful drives well beyond 300 yards -- outdistancing Salas by nearly 100 yards off one tee -- while spraying a few into trouble. Salas kept hitting fairways and greens, playing within herself, the way she always does. On the difficult, 446-yard 13th hole, Salas used a 3-wood from 203 yards and secured a par that gave the Americans a 6-and-5 victory.

Salas has known Yin since the teenager was 12 and already showing much potential. "She used to come to practice at my golf course and I used to see her," Salas said, "and now we're on the same Solheim Cup [team]."

Yin is a high-energy personality, and after she three-putted No. 7, Salas offered some succinct but valuable advice.

"I said, 'Yeah, you need to calm down,'" Salas said. "Like, just take it easy. It all comes down to fairways and greens."

And one other thing, according to Inkster.

"She's got heart, and you can't teach that," Inkster said of Salas. "She wants the ball. She wants to be out there. I was really happy she qualified so I didn't have to waste a pick on her, but I would have definitely chosen her on my team."

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