American Lizette Salas revealed a long-running mental struggle Thursday after firing a bogey-free five-under-par 67 to seize a one-stroke lead following the first round of the Women's PGA Championship.
England's Charley Hull was one stroke back at Atlanta Athletic Club with South Korea's Lee6 Jeong-eun, China's Lin Xiyu and American Jessica Korda in a pack two adrift.
Salas, who won her only LPGA title seven years ago at Kingsmill in Williamsburg, Virginia, said she made a major mental and emotional breakthrough last month at the course in the LPGA Pure Silk Championship.
"It actually was getting darker before it got lighter, and just being in that at Kingsmill, I had a lot of good memories. That really just lit a spark in me," Salas said.
"That was the turning point, just stepping into that event and a lot of positivity going into that. The shift in everything is that self-confidence and I'm not afraid to be out here anymore.
"When was I afraid? Probably all of 2020. That was a really tough year for me. It was probably one of the lowest points of my career mentally, but I'm so lucky to have a strong backbone and team to just to be there for me.
- 'Upward trend' -
"I think we're on an upward trend and golf is a lot more fun right now."
Salas had her best finish in 44 major starts with a runner-up showing at the 2019 Women's British Open but the Covid-19 pandemic shut down the LPGA in February 2020.
"To not get in a lot of detail, it was a combination of things," Salas said. "I really didn't like myself in 2020 and I think with the whole Covid and not being able to work and have golf as my outlet, that really hit hard.
"As much as I love my family and loved being around them, it was tough. I homeschooled my nephew (in second grade) 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 so bad that the golf couldn't help.
"But we've turned over a new leaf, and I'm happy where I am right now, and I'm looking forward to the next few days."
Without golf, Salas struggled to hold onto her identity.
"I guess the identity of me being a pro golfer and not really living that lifestyle, but it was accumulation of a lot of other things," she said.
"I had to take care of my mental health and that's something that a lot of people don't really take into consideration. For me coming from a Hispanic background, it's very hard to talk about that."
Returning to the LPGA brought anxiety and excitement but then something else to cope with -- disappointment.
"I thought the anxiety was more nerves, but by the time we went back out there I was just not in the right mindset," she said.
"I wasn't able to play for a long time, and then when I saw that I wasn't getting the results I wanted, it ate me up. It was really bad. But also I wouldn't ask for help. I was very stubborn."
- Struggle to speak out -
Salas said she had a fight to even make her struggles public.
"I wanted to talk about this in the beginning of the year, but I wasn't ready," she said. "I wanted to share my story and my process when I was confident enough to share. I guess now is the time to talk about it.
"Everyone has their own timeline of sharing what they've gone through. And I'm not going to lie. I'm a little nervous even talking about it now, but it's OK. And I'm in a much better place. Just happy to be here.
"I feel great. I feel more like myself. I'm not really intimidated by anything anymore. I'm enjoying the process. I'm better at communicating.
"And just smiling a lot more."