JOHNS CREEK, Georgia – Lizette Salas said something striking when she came in to talk about her flawless 5-under 67 to lead the KPMG Women’s PGA: “I’m not afraid to be out here anymore.”
An unexpected and vulnerable admission from a 31-year-old veteran of four Solheim Cup teams and winner of the 2014 Kingsmill.
“I didn’t really like myself in 2020,” she explained.
Salas, who leads by two early on at Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course, talked at length with the press after her round about the mental hurdles she faced in 2020 that spilled over into this year.
A turning point came at this year’s Pure Silk Championship at Kingsmill, site of her breakthrough victory. She had her old caddie, John Killeen, back on the bag and a new toy, a center-shafted Ping putter, to be excited about. Good memories came flooding back and she tied for fifth, with the prospect of another Solheim Cup lighting a fire that’d been extinguished, in part, by a global pandemic.
USA captain Juli Inkster celebrates with Lizette Salas after winning the The Solheim Cup at Des Moines Golf and Country Club. (Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports)
“As much as I love my family and loved being around them,” said Salas, “it was tough. I homeschooled my nephew for about two months and I said, ‘No more, please.’ But I understand that everyone had to go through something, and it was hard for me to even speak about it just because I felt like other people are going through the same thing. Why do I need to feel sorry for myself?
“Over time, it accumulated and got worse, and when I finally got out here, it was just – it was kind of – it was so bad that the golf couldn’t help.”
Salas admits that she was too stubborn to ask for help. Instead, she shut people out. At one point, she moved to Dallas to try out a new team but said that backfired. She returned to longtime coach Jim Gormley and trainer Josh Loyo and got back to work. Agent J.S. Kang remains by her side.
“That was not the right way to do it, and I acknowledge that,” said Salas. “I’m a different person now, and I think my team is proud of me, and I hope I can just continue this positive process.”
Last week, Nelly Korda won the Meijer LPGA Classic and said that the comments from Bubba Watson and Matthew Wolff at the U.S. Open about their mental health struggles rang true. Wolff said he took time away from the PGA Tour to deal with the extreme pressure and stress that he felt.
“It takes someone to say it out loud for you to realize it deep down inside,” said Nelly, “but when you play well throughout the season, like I’ve had a pretty good season, you just put so much pressure on yourself.”
Alena Sharp currently sits in a share of second at the KPMG at 3 under. She recently brought her coach down from Canada for a hardcore putting session that lasted 12 days. She’d been suffering from the yips since 2020 and had hoped it would just go away.
She’s currently working with two new sports psychologists, learning ways to keep her anxiety down when the pressure mounts, as it did on Thursday. She listened to the birds and the wind, felt the ground beneath her feet and talked to her wife and caddie Sarah Bowman, letting her know that she was feeling nervous.
“That was tough today dealing with that,” said Sharp, “but I battled through. I have a lot of tools to get through it. But accepting it’s going to be that way in the back of my mind, but I have the tools to beat it.”
In an effort to slow down her mind and decompress, Salas started reading books at night to help her fall asleep.
When she dove into “I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” Salas felt like she was reading a biography of herself. She also reading a book about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo that focuses on loving yourself and self-confidence.
“I wanted to talk about this in the beginning of the year,” she said, “but I wasn’t ready. I guess now is the time to talk about it, and that’s OK.”