“I think my game really suits this golf course and kept it boring,” she said. “That’s pretty much the game plan. Fairways and greens and rolled in a few good putts, which I think really gets my confidence going, and I continued that momentum throughout the round.”
Salas is one shot clear of England’s Charley Hull, who got up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the final hole, making an eight-footer to save par and finish at 4-under 68. The group tied for third at 3 under consists of Jessica Korda, Austin Ernst, Jeongeun Lee6, Danie Holmqvist, Yealimi Noh, Xiyu Lin and Alena Sharp.
Thirteen players were tied for 10th after shooting 70, including Nelly Korda, Maria Fassi, Patty Tavatanakit and Nanna Koerstz Madsen, who was 5 under until taking a triple bogey on her 15th hole.
Defending KPMG champ Sei Young Kim bogeyed three of her first four holes, battled back to get to even par, but doubled the eighth hole, her 17th, and shot 74. World No. 1 Jin Young Ko of Korea posted a triple bogey on the par-3 15th and shot 75. Yuka Saso, who won the U.S. Women’s Open three weeks ago, shot 73 with a double bogey.
Salas is the latest professional athlete to address the mental-health issues. PGA Tour player Matthew Wolff was one of the first; he stayed away from competition for two months before returning for the U.S. Open. The topic is now openly discussed by luminaries from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Olympic star Michael Phelps.
“I had to take care of my mental health,” she said. “That’s something a lot of people don’t really take into consideration. I think for me, coming from a Hispanic background, it’s very hard to talk about that, but I’ve very fortunate to have a team that was willing to bend over backwards to help me and get me to where I am right now.”
Salas, 31, has been trending in the right direction for the last two months. The breakthrough came at the Pure Silk Championship in Williamsburg, Va., the site of her lone LPGA win in 2014. She tied for fifth there, but the difference was obvious. After a respectable T23 at the U.S. Women’s Open, Salas tied for sixth at the Meijer LPGA Classic.
“Pure Silk was the light,” she said. That’s when caddie John Killeen returned to the bag. She got a new putter and other goodies. “I was playing the golf I know how. That really just lit a spark in me.”
The best finish for Salas in a major championship is second at the 2019 Women’s British Open. She tied for fifth at the 2019 Women’s PGA Championship, but missed the cut in the event in 2020.
On Thursday, Salas hit 12 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation, despite ranking near the bottom of the field (142nd) in driving distance. She scrambled to make par the five times she missed the green and did not have a bogey on the card.
The fairways at the Athletic Club’s Highlands Course were slow to dry, despite a steady breeze that blew all day. There were only five scores in the 60s and only 23 below par. Eleven players shot 80 or higher.
“It’s still really wet,” Jessica Korda said. “We had a lot of mud balls out there, and I was surprised we played the ball down. The greens are really, really good. They’re fast, and they roll exactly how you think they should.”
Inbee Park had a mud ball that led to a triple bogey on the eighth hole, but got one stroke back when she rolled in an 80-footer for birdie on the 18th hole.
“It’s just hard to hit 180-yard shots with mud balls, and you don’t know where it’s going to go,” Park said. “That hole where I made the triple is a really good example. It was tough and really a grind out there, but that last putt really makes up for it.”