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 Southern California — 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 2009 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.