LPGA star Lizette Salas' unique bond with her Latin community
As Lizette Salas stood on the tee to start her week at this year's ANA Invitational, she looked down the fairway and saw dozens of faces along the ropes who looked just like her.
And for the next several hours and next several days, the pride of Azusa, California, was followed around Mission Hills Country Club step by step and shot by shot by women from the Latina Golfers Association (LGA).
Most were commuting from greater Los Angeles each day to support their homegrown star. All were there to cheer for the woman who caused them to care about a game few of them had grown up playing but had since come to love.
"Sometimes we all wear T-shirts and buttons with her name on it, and we'll walk with her and clap and cheer," said Azucena Maldonado, LGA founder.
"She knows who we are, plus there are plenty of Azusa friends, family and kids from the San Gabriel junior program following her," Maldonado added. "We're all so proud."
Salas has become the centerpiece for American golfers of Hispanic descent, especially in her East L.A. hometown of Azusa, which has a 68 percent Latin population.
But as Salas' professional stature has grown during her seven years on the LPGA Tour, where she has won once, posted 26 top-10 finishes, played on three U.S. Solheim Cup teams and earned more than $4 million in prize money, so has her reach within the community she still calls home.
"One of my goals was to create more awareness about golf where you might not think there is golf, especially in a large Hispanic community," said Salas, currently ranked No. 24 in the world.
The local San Gabriel Junior Golf program, started by her first golf instructor, Jerry Herrera, has taught 14,000 kids in 13 years. The public year-round program meets once a week at a per-child cost of $2 per session that includes professional instruction, unlimited range balls, scholastic tutoring, future-career mentoring and a variety of ways for kids to play golf.
The program began in 2006 at Azusa Greens Golf Course, where Salas' father still works in golf course maintenance and where his daughter first began hitting balls. It moved across the San Gabriel River to the nine-hole executive Rancho Duarte Golf Course in 2016, and is still turning neighborhood kids into college-bound golfers.
Not surprisingly, the player they all revere is the one who grew up like them -- the one who now sponsors the program, helped pay for a $6,400 scoreboard that doubles as a stage for guest speakers, and tells them their education is more important than any golf shot.
"Even though she travels the world with the LPGA, Lizette is active with the program and is a tremendous inspiration to the girls and boys here," said Herrera, a PGA professional and president of the San Gabriel Junior Golf program. "Whenever she shows up, the kids are giddy, but they feel very comfortable around her -- like she's one of them."
Salas does more than just show up and sign autographs. She serves on the board as secretary-treasurer and stays informed about the program's expenses. When kids in the program apply for college scholarships or apply to colleges, Salas signs letters of recommendation.
Her name is also on the program's Lizette Salas Player of the Year award for both boys and girls. And when the program added its own community traveling team this year in the PGA Junior Golf League, both the boys' and girls' teams wore Lizette Salas Team jerseys.
"The kids keep me humble," Salas said, smiling. "I always knew golf was going to be my way to college and to have a different life."
Salas was a freshman at the University of Southern California when Herrera started the program, but she has seen its impact on the lives of kids from her community.
"If I'd had a junior program like that when I was a kid, it would have given me a head start," she said.
Salas has also influenced area high school players. For the past couple of years, her high school golf coach has brought his boys' team to watch her play at the Kia Classic.
Alexa Melton, who learned to play in the San Gabriel Junior Golf program, won the Southern California Women's Amateur Championship in July. Melton, 17, will play college golf at Pepperdine University next year and hopes to follow Salas to the LPGA Tour.
"We have kids who are unbelievably talented and some of them will surpass Lizette in the future," Herrera said.
Another local junior, Briana Chacon, 17, didn't come through the San Gabriel program, but saw Salas as the player she wanted to emulate. Chacon will play college golf at the University of Oregon next year and also dreams of the LPGA after she earns her degree.
"I would always point out Lizette and the USC women's golf team to my daughter," said Oscar Chacon of Whittier, California. "I would tell her, 'Lizette is Mexican-American, just like you,' so that influence has always been there."
But it's not just juniors who have benefitted from the influence of Salas. Maldonado, who launched the Latina Golfers Association 10 years ago, knew then-college student Salas and decided to see if she could bring more Latinas to the game in the Los Angeles area by forming a golf group especially for them.
At her first 2008 meeting, 94 women showed up, along with Herrera and Salas' parents, Martha and Ramon. Maldonado began organizing regular golf clinics, lessons, play dates, nine-hole tournaments, summer golf lessons for kids, golf fashion shows, golf brunches and classes in golf etiquette. She even took golf equipment to local parks and reached out to women and children there.
"I figured I had to go to them where they were," she said.
Fast forward to 2018, and LGA has welcomed more than 1,500 Latina members from five states. The title sponsor of its annual nine-hole golf tournament this fall will be the PGA of America.
"It's validation that the golf industry is acknowledging us," Maldonado said. "I'm very proud of this because we've had an impact on the growth of the game in our community."
While most LGA members are beginners and play golf socially, are not interested in establishing a golf handicap and may not even keep score, the player who inspired them to pick up a club remains a shining star at the highest level of the sport they now love.
"Lizette has played a major role in igniting the excitement we all have in golf," Maldonado said. "Now, I can see a pipeline for Latinas -- maybe even to the LPGA for some."
Maldonado provides what she calls "comadre golf" to LGA members in a relaxed, nonjudgmental environment where everybody helps each other and beginners are nurtured, rather than made to feel inept.
That attracted local banker Gilda Pettit, who took up golf at age 50. She did it because it was her colleagues who played golf with her clients, not she. By adding the tool of golf, Pettit is now able to play with clients and in company outings, and she's established a special connection with senior staff.
"Everybody knows I'm in a golf community and that I follow Lizette Salas," said Pettit, vice president and team lead in commercial loans at City National Bank in downtown Los Angeles. "Our executives are now following Lizette on the LPGA Tour and will stop by and talk about her tournaments."
Pettit takes her clubs when she travels to meet business clients and she no longer shies away from playing golf with executives from her office. But of equal importance, she tries to share her love of the game with teenage girls from the community and show them its value for women in the workplace.
She and Maldonado have led local high school girls' teams to watch Salas compete at the LPGA's Kia Classic and ANA Invitational. Pettit believes that experience has shown the teens options.
"They're spending time with professional businesswomen and they're watching professional women golfers," Pettit said. "You can see their eyes light up as they watch Lizette play. It tells these girls they have choices, and that's powerful."
And according to the National Golf Foundation, the game's top stars do have a powerful influence on those who play.
With an estimated 24 million golfers in the United States, female participation has increased from 18 percent six years ago to a current 24 percent -- proof that more women are hitting the links.
"When tour players come from diverse backgrounds, that will have a positive influence among people from similar backgrounds to consider trying golf," said Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation.
"And if you subscribe to the theory that today's juniors will be tomorrow's golfers, then the face of golf is going to change, since about 33 percent of all juniors today are girls," Mona added.
About 37 percent of the nation's population is an ethnic minority, which includes Hispanics, said Mona, but in golf, only about 20 percent of the nation's current golf population is categorized as minority players.
"The involvement in the game among groups of people who have traditionally been under-represented in golf is critical to the future health of the game," he said. "For golf to fulfill its potential, it needs to look like America looks."
And as Salas looks into the mirror of her galleries at LPGA events throughout America, she sees many new faces.
"I don't think she really grasps the impact she has and the role she plays," Maldonado said. "Her story is our story."