GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP, N.J. – Lizette Salas is quickly emerging as America’s best-kept secret on the LPGA.
While the 23-year-old Californian is winless since joining the tour last year, Salas has jumped all the way to No. 18 in the women's world rankings. This year alone, she has four top-10 finishes, is ranked No. 5 with a 70.0 scoring average and has earnings of $382,440, seventh best on tour. If she keeps it up, she will soon be in Colorado on the U.S. Solheim Cup team.
Not bad for someone who grew up playing softball, basketball and volleyball and only had time to learn golf on weekends. In fact, she picked up her tour card by winning a nine-person playoff for the final spot at qualifying school.
''I think what's different this year is my mentality,'' Salas said on Thursday afternoon, a day before teeing off in the $1.5 million ShopRite LPGA Classic, outside Atlantic City. ''I am a lot more confident than I was last year when I was getting my feet wet and trying to see what worked for me out there when it was trial and error.''
The changes late last year weren't minor. Salsa hired a new coach (Jim Gormley), changed her caddie (Greg Puga) and got new equipment.
''It was a big chance and a big risk,'' Salas said. ''I had my best finish with a ninth in Malaysia, and I think that was the spark that carried my confidence from last year into this year. I am just having a lot more fun this year.''
Salsa also has learned to put herself into contention most weeks. She has been in the top 20 in seven of 10 events, including a loss in a playoff to Suzann Pettersen in Hawaii.
Salas played a nine-hole stretch on the final day in 9 under to get into the playoff.
A couple of weeks earlier, she was in position to win the Kraft Nabisco Championship but closed with a 79 to tie for 25th.
''I am not even in my second full year on tour, and I have been learning so much in the last seven or eight months that has not only helped my golf game but my mental game at the same time,'' she said.
Salas, who played on the Symetra Tour in 2011, had considered hiring a sports psychologist but realized she has all the support she needs from her family. But that's the way it has always been.
Her parents, Ramon and Martha, immigrated from the same region in Mexico. They met working at a factory in California, got married, had three children and became U.S. citizens. Lizette was the youngest.
She developed a love for golf after visiting her father at the Azusa Greens Golf Course, where her father is the chief mechanic and did some handyman work for club professional Jerry Herrera.
Instead of getting paid for the work, Ramon Salas asked Herrera to give his daughter golf lessons on the weekends.
''I knew at a very young age this sport was going to get me an education, just because I knew my parents could not afford $50,000 a year,'' Salas said. ''So I made it a goal of mine to get a scholarship to any university, and when I got to high school, I got more serious and had a lot of top universities calling. I was not only overwhelmed. I was scared.''
Salas eventually decided to accept a scholarship at the University of Southern California, where she led the Trojans to an NCAA championship and became the school's first four-time All-American.
Even after college, Ramon Salas helped. He caddied for his daughter and built a putting aid to help her on the greens.
''He means just so much to me,'' Salas said.
There is another person who is helping Salas. Hall of Famer Nancy Lopez has talked with her, and the two met earlier this year in Arizona.
''I really respect her a lot, not just because of her golf game or the fact she is a Hall of Famer,'' Salas said. ''Just the fact that she is still giving back to the game of golf, helping upcoming players. That says a lot about her character. She actually texted me yesterday to call her. We've established a relationship, and she is teaching me the ropes on how to be a successful tour player. All I have to do is listen and try to do what she says with my own style. I can't be the next Nancy Lopez or Lorena Ochoa, but I can definitely make my own statement on this tour and I am going to have a lot of fun with it.''
Stacy Lewis will be defending her title at the ShopRite Classic on the Bay Course at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club.