Gabe Salvanera

From Crushing Cans to Arizona State Stalwart

Born to immigrants who struggled to put food on the table, Gabe Salvanera has developed into a top player at one of the country’s top programs

By Jordan Perez

If there’s one thing about the parents of junior golfers, it’s that they’re always looking for ways to get their kids ahead.

Oscar Salvanera’s quest involved searching for soda cans. Soda cans meant money, which meant being able to pay for gas and tournament entry fees for his adolescent son, Gabe.

“Growing up, we couldn’t really afford to play in many tournaments, so we had to pick and choose the big ones,” says Gabe. The “big ones” were U.S. Junior qualifiers and the Junior Worlds, tournaments that provided opportunities to build a resume and were prime scouting locations for college coaches.

These marquee events naturally brought even bigger talent with them. And kids in Gabe’s age group were only getting stronger and driving the ball farther. Ever the creative one, Oscar found a use for the soda cans before he cashed them in: Have Gabe crush them, to improve his forearm strength.

“That’s all you can ask for when you’re like 10, 11 years old, just trying to find that little advantage,” Gabe says. “To this day, I’m still trying to find that little advantage.”

ASU 2 jpg

As a high school junior, he won the Arizona state championship, then caught on at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix. Now he’s a senior at Arizona State who has developed into a contributor for one of the top college golf programs in the country. If you cross reference resumes, Gabe doesn’t have the same pedigree as his teammates, but he has shown he has game and has used his fiery work ethic to fit right in with the Sun Devils.

Ten national championship trophies greet everyone who walks into the lobby at Papago Golf Course, earned by athletes mostly imported from the strongest golf federations in the world and/or built through the AJGA.

Gabe Salvanera took his own path to get there.

“When I first saw this space, it was like Disneyland to me,” he says about Papago. “A golfer’s dream.” The muni-turned-golf sanctuary has everything a golfer could want. He has a locker with his name on it. His favorite spot is the four-acre short-game area. “You can find any shot that you need to work on here,” he says. 

He recounted his journey as he sat in a maroon chair in the locker room, with memories of an early life that was hardly comfortable. Gabe was born in 2001, a year after his parents arrived from the Philippines. When Oscar and Maria Salvanera weren’t taking up extra shifts as hospital staffers to feed their family, they committed their time at home to supporting Gabe and his five siblings. For Oscar, that included spending time at the golf course with his 4-year-old son.

ASU 3 jpg

Gabe stayed local, primarily playing junior events in Arizona. Money was tight, but the family scraped together enough to venture to the Junior Worlds. He only saw a swing coach after he made it to Arizona State. Do you get the tournament exposure or spend an hour on a lesson? The answer was easy.

The dream of playing professional golf was always there, but the self-belief didn’t come until high school. No one believed in him as much as he did himself. Everything changed when he posted a 62 as a sophomore. As a junior, he was tagged with the nickname “Second-place Salvanera” after he was a runner-up in four consecutive tournaments. When Queen Creek High School made it to the state championship, he snapped the streak, winning the individual title.

“(I realized) even though I didn’t grow up playing a good home club and my parents not having enough money to get nice equipment or more tournaments, if I just kept working at it, I could get there eventually,” he says. 

So that’s what he did.

“We didn’t really grow up with much,” says Bea, Gabe’s older sister. “My dad had to be very creative with how he trained Gabe.” The 5 a.m. wakeup calls to hit balls in triple-digit heat are a rite of passage for kids growing up in the Sonoran Desert. Sometimes, no one was home after school to take Gabe to the golf course. “I would take my putter and my wedge and walk to it,” he says.

Gabe appeared as a blip on the radar of Arizona State coach Matt Thurmond’s radar after he became the high school champion and was named Arizona’s Golfer of the Year. But Thurmond needed to see more. “He was a really good golfer that hadn’t really become a great tournament golfer,” Thurmond says. “He didn’t quite have the experience for us to bring him in at that time.”

The best option was staying close to home. Gabe enrolled at South Mountain, a program that boasted top-notch transfers. He broke out immediately, winning two events in his first semester, in 2019. That was enough to earn Thurmond’s trust and an offer from Arizona State, and over the rest of the season, Gabe racked up six other top-five finishes and won the Phil Mickelson Freshman of the Year award.

ASU 5 jpg

“That summer before I went to South Mountain, I really found my full swing,” Gabe says. “It was perfect timing, I guess.” He credits the “blood, sweat and tears” spent with his father trying to figure it out, just as they always had.

“I kind of had a chip on my shoulder,” Gabe says. “Like, I knew I was good, but they didn’t think I was good. So it’s kind of like, all right, let’s prove them wrong.” Sitting atop the NJCAA Division II rankings, he finished the year with a 69.33 scoring average. Next stop? His dream school.

But upon arriving on campus in the fall of 2020, he was tested like never before. He knew he had the game — at least he thought he did — but intense qualifiers played against world-class talent put doubts in his mind. The voices in his head became deafening. He sought help from a sports psychologist at Arizona State, who gave him the tools to help silence those voices. His first start didn’t come until the spring. 

For Bea, a confidant and best friend, it was difficult to watch. “It’s been a struggle for him to try and showcase his work,” she says, although she is quick to add she has never heard him fuss or stop trying. “He doesn’t ever complain,” she says. “He just does it.”

Gabe Salvanera

He won twice over winter break of his junior year and contended at the 2022 Southwestern, finishing second at the amateur event in the peak of the Arizona summer. That came just a month after ASU lost to Texas in the national championship match. Gabe was there, but only as a cheerleader. 

Patiently anticipating a start with the Sun Devils, he finally qualified for his first travel lineup last fall at the Maui Jim Invitational. There were typical nerves, but everything felt good in the practice round. He vowed to his dad that he’d show everyone he was the real deal.

The next day, the negative voices crept back in. “Not even 24 hours ago, I was hitting these fairways and now I can’t even put the ball wherever I want to,” he says. He shot 77. Frantic, he called his dad, who put things in perspective.

“It’s just golf,” Oscar reminded his son. “You want to feel pressure? Go to the Philippines and not know when your next meal is or not living in a house that has AC or has a roof over your head. You’re just playing golf. You have your roof over your head and food on the table.”

While warming up for the second round, Gabe decided: How much worse could I play? He shot a 63, matching the fourth-lowest round in program history. “That day, I didn’t even feel like I was doing anything special,” he says. “I was just plugging and chugging along.” He followed that up with a 66 and contributed to the team’s record performance. 

Rounds such as that are a big reason why Thurmond took a chance on the junior college kid without much of a pedigree. “He has a unique ability when things are going well to just keep going and shoot a really low score,” Thurmond says. “A lot of people will self-sabotage when things aren’t going really well. He keeps pushing and he’s comfortable.”

It was his only start in the fall, but he kept pushing. He collected three top 10s over the winter break and played his way into the lineup in Arizona State’s spring opener, at last week’s Southwestern Invitational. Playing in the No. 3 position on the five-man team, Gabe contributed a counting score in the first two rounds, posted rounds of 71-75-83 and finished T-47; the Sun Devils finished third. He’ll have another year of eligibility, which he plans to use, but the focus for the rest of his spring will be trying to solidify his starting role on one of the top teams in college golf. He hasn’t forgotten his journey and has come to appreciate it. 

“If I were to go back and tell myself, ‘Hey, I know, you didn’t get recruited well, but you ended up being at ASU’, I’d be not just shocked, but intrigued,” he says. “What did I do?”

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest stories, special events, and exclusive merch drops!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top