Defending champ Salas eager to return to Kingsmill

Dave Fairbank
Contact Reporterdfairbank@dailypress.com

WILLIAMSBURG — Lizette Salas dined with close friend and fellow pro golfer Danielle Kang during a tournament in Incheon, South Korea, last October when a stranger approached the table seeking an autograph.

Salas motioned toward Kang, an American of Korean descent, and figured the man wanted her signature.

"No no, just Salas," she said the gentleman responded.

Salas' first LPGA tour win, last year at Kingsmill, elevated her profile in ways and places she never imagined.

"I'm definitely more noticed, which is nice," Salas said Wednesday. "It's just been a really good blessing for me. I've got more fans, which is great. To grow the game is our goal, not just for me, but for the LPGA is to grow the game. To play golf, to grow the sport. It just really changed my life in a positive way."

Salas parachuted into Kingsmill for media day, in advance of next month's tournament. Forty-four of the top 50 money winners on tour this year, and nine of the top 10 in the Rolex rankings, are committed to the $1.3 million event, May 14-17, at Kingsmill's River Course.

Included on the list is two-time tournament winner Sei Young Kim, who tops the money list, along with two-time Kingsmill champ Cristie Kerr, Brittany Lincicome, who won the first major of the year, and world No. 1 Lydia Ko.

Kingsmill course director Wayne Nooe said that the par-71 River Course was a little behind schedule, due to the harsh winter, but that it "exploded" in the past 7-10 days.

"If we get the same improvement over the next few weeks that we've had in the past 7-10 days, we'll be good," Nooe said.

Salas' win here last May was the highlight of a year in which she finished 24th on the money list ($669,106), with four top-10 finishes and three top-threes in her third year on tour.

She hasn't performed to expectations this year, with just two top-15 finishes in six starts and $65,000 in earnings. But she dealt with hip and lower back issues, dating back to last year, that affected her play and caused her to miss a couple of tournaments.

Salas, 25, pronounced herself healthy and fit Wednesday, in part due to an unlikely golf training regimen. More on that in a minute.

"I'm just trying to get back to where I was," she said. "I have a good team around me, and so knowing that I'm coming back to a place where I'm comfortable and where I have a lot of good memories, it's going to be pretty helpful."

Salas' inaugural win was a relative cruise, winning by four shots. She entered Sunday's final round with a three-stroke lead, and no challenger got closer than three shots. Her walk up the 18th fairway was more celebratory stroll than competitive grind on what she called one of the tour's most intimidating closing holes.

Her win last year also contributed to an award she will receive from her alma mater, Southern Cal. She will receive the school's Young Alumni Merit Award, which goes to graduates under 30 who have excelled inside and outside their profession. She also helps run a junior golf foundation.

The USC awards dinner is Saturday night, so she is skipping this week's LPGA tour stop in San Francisco. The break in her schedule also allowed her to get to Williamsburg.

Salas is eager to return to competition, in Texas at the end of this month and then Kingsmill two weeks later. Physically, she feels prepared, buoyed by a training regimen that includes kickboxing.

A friend and fellow golfer who was in a kickboxing class near their home in California recommended that she give it a try. She was skeptical until she went through a couple of workouts and was encouraged by the instructor.

"Afterward, you just feel so refreshed," Salas said. "It's a different kind of cardio than I've ever felt. It teaches you how to breathe, how to use your body in terms of where to punch, how to punch. It's been really good for me."

She said that there's more carryover from kickboxing to golf than she imagined. She said that it's about releasing energy at the proper moment, in short bursts, and using your legs to punch, with your arms and shoulders following.

"It's the same thing with a golf swing," Salas said. "You have to exert the energy at a certain time to get maximum power. What I've learned is that the more you can stabilize your lower body and really use it at the right time, with the right amount of speed, it maximizes the amount of power and consistency in your game. It's been really helpful."

Kickboxing also has helped loosen her hip and lower back, she said, which should improve her performance. And perhaps allow her to punch through for greater success.

Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.

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