USC's Lizette Salas driven to succeed

Lizette Salas began playing golf at 7, and even at that young age, she could tell something was different.

Salas, the youngest child of Mexican immigrants, rarely saw anyone else who looked like her playing the game. She hardly ever saw other Hispanic children at the driving range or at the putting green or entered in junior tournaments.

The absence of Latinas made Salas a little skittish.

"I felt like the weird flower out on the golf course," she said. "At first, it was really intimidating because I was the only Latina and it was tougher for me to get accepted, but I started making new friends and kind of got used to the fact that there aren't too many of us out there."

She has since grown quite comfortable on the course.

At 15, she shot 62 in a junior tournament. As a senior at Azusa High in California, she won the state high school championships and in June she graduated from USC as the first Trojans women's golfer ever to earn All-American status four consecutive years.

She turned professional soon after graduation and had top-10 finishes in two of her first three events on the developmental Futures Tour then qualified for the U.S. Women's Open in July. There, she stayed in contention through three rounds before finishing tied for 15th.

"She is real consistent," said Bob Lasken, her swing coach. "She never gets too far off. There's not too many things that can go wrong with her swing and she's got a good mind for it. She's got a pretty bright future ahead of her."

Ten years ago, Salas never would have guessed she'd get to the brink of professional golf success.

She began playing golf when her father, Ramon, a mechanic at the Azusa Greens Golf Course, brought her to the course one day and had her hit balls. That turned into occasional father-daughter outings on the course.

"When we started, we never thought about the future, we just tried to enjoy the game," Ramon said. "What I did was just play with her all the time and just enjoy spending time with my daughter."

Ramon saw that she might have some talent and asked Jerry Herrera, the head professional at Azusa Greens, if he would give Lizette some lessons. In exchange, Ramon offered to do favors such as fixing golf clubs and extra yard work.

"I started to see her showing something," Ramon said, adding, "I didn't mind working hard to help her."

Hard work was nothing new to Ramon. He left Mexico in 1973 seeking greener pastures and came to the U.S. with nothing. He settled in Azusa because he had a friend there, and found work at the golf course fixing lawn mowers, golf carts and other machinery. Nearly 30 years later, he still works there as the head mechanic.

That work ethic rubbed off on Lizette. Despite feeling out of place at the course, she dedicated herself to practice and became determined to succeed.

"I'm from a city where it's mainly Hispanic and the reputation isn't always positive and I was surrounded by people that didn't always make the right decisions," she said. "I wanted to change that. If I can show that a Mexican can play golf, then maybe it will show others that they can do anything they want if they just work at it."

And her drive to succeed wasn't limited to the golf course. When Salas received her USC diploma in June, she became the first in her family to graduate from college. Her degree is also a rarity in the golf community during an era of 16-year-olds turning professional and players skipping college to try their luck on tour.

"I think they have a great attitude as a family," Lasken said of the Salases. "They don't pressure her. They've raised her to work hard and do the best you can. … I mean, she graduated from school. That's rare in golfers with that kind of talent these days, especially on the women's side. That shows you how dedicated she is."

Salas was chosen to speak at a USC graduation ceremony in June and she delivered an emotional speech detailing her rise to success in a sport in which not many with her heritage had previously succeeded.

"My parents being immigrants, they had a similar experience coming here where they felt out of place and like they didn't belong," Salas said. "They kind of told me just do my thing and with time I'll get more comfortable.

"With time, I got used it and I just embraced it. So, it's almost because of who I am and where I come from that I was able to get to where I am now."

Peter Yoon covers UCLA for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.