She put the clubs away and tried to relax for a few days – a good call given that temperatures in the Coachella Valley have butted against the 120 mark recently. Dry or not, that’s the kind of heat you use to barbecue a pig. It’s a good thing Gabriela Ruffels had some downtime in California.
The newly minted U.S. Women’s Amateur champion has spent her first week in the worldwide spotlight pretty far away from it. She’s watched some of the men’s U.S. Amateur. She also did a Morning Drive interview on Golf Channel and was on a few radio stations in her native Australia, which required setting some alarms because of time differences. But other than that, the rising University of Southern California junior has been hanging out with family, responding to posts on social media and answering texts from friends, family and a few familiar faces in the game.
“Karrie Webb reached out,” Ruffels said. “She had said on Twitter while I was playing, ‘When I grow up I want to hit my irons like Gabi.’ That was really cool to have Karrie say something like that. Also, Gary Player reached out. I’ve been getting a lot of messages from friends, family, people at USC and a lot of people back home in Australia.”
When she speaks, the “back home in Australia” part is confusing. Ruffels, who is the first Aussie in history to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur, sounds about as Australian as the hostess at your local Outback. That’s because she lived in America until age 8 – the period of human development when accents form. Then her parents, both tennis professionals, moved the family to their home in Sandringham on the southern Australian coast near Royal Melbourne and Victoria Golf Club, two of the best in the world.
After capturing the Women’s North & South Amateur three weeks before, Ruffels arrived in West Point, Miss., with high expectations.
As the daughter of tennis pros, Ruffels shares something in common with the LPGA’s Korda sisters. “Nelly and Jess both texted me congratulations,” she said. Gabriela’s father, Ray Ruffels, preceded the Kordas’ father, Petr, on the Association of Tennis Professionals Tour but was a coach when Petr reached No. 2 in the world. Anna-Maria Fernandez, Gabriela’s mom, won an individual national championship and two team national titles at USC.
“We know (the Kordas) very well,” Ruffels said. “My dad is good friends with Petr. And when I played in the U.S. Women’s Open in May my mom got to meet their mom (Regina Rajchrtová, who competed in tennis for her native Czechoslovakia in the 1988 Summer Olympics). We do share some similarities in that our parents were tennis players and we’re golfers.”
Ruffels’ brother, Ryan, plays on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica. “My brother is really good friends with Nelly,” she said. “So, I got to meet her through my brother at Mission Hills during the ANA Inspiration. She texted me and said, ‘See you at the majors next year,’ because of all the exemptions I get through the (U.S. Women’s Amateur) win.”
Comparisons between the Ruffels and Kordas are inevitable. Not only are Nelly and Jessica winners on the LPGA Tour (and teammates to be in the upcoming Solheim Cup), but their younger brother Sebastian is a world-class tennis player.
But Gabriela will also be compared to another golfer, one she’d never heard of. “Larry Nelson? No, I don’t know who that is,” she said.
The 20-year-old can be forgiven for not knowing a Hall of Famer who won his last major a dozen years before she was born. But they have a kinship. Nelson took up the game at age 21. Gabi didn’t pick up a club until she was 15. “Wow, it’s crazy that I don’t know him,” she said when told about Nelson’s late start in the game. “I’ll have to look him up.”
Before taking up golf, Nelson played baseball and was an Army infantry sergeant in Vietnam. Before taking her first swing, Ruffels played high-level junior tennis. But her parents’ game didn’t hold the same sway with her. She walked away from the courts and headed to the driving range one afternoon with her father’s clubs and no expectations.
“The past two or three years, I kind of got the hang of it,” Ruffels said, as if golf is a hobby you master once you get it. “I’m always pushing myself to do better. When I moved to the U.S. to go to school here (at USC) my game progressed really quickly.”
The only thing more extraordinary than her backstory was the way in which she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur title. After capturing the Women’s North & South Amateur three weeks before, she arrived in West Point, Miss., with high expectations.
“I think I have an edge (in match play) because of (my tennis background),” she said. “But I’ve also played so many match-play tournaments in my short time in golf. Back home in Australia I’ve played in interstate team matches and the Australia Women’s Amateur, which is match play. So, I have some experience.”
But the final 18 holes against Albane Valenzuela at Old Waverly Golf Club was some of the most compelling golf of the year. “I think every hole in that final 18 was won with a birdie,” Ruffels said.
None bigger than the final two. With the match tied through 16 holes, Ruffels birdied the par-3 17th to take a 1-up lead. Then on 18, after Valenzuela hit an approach to 4 feet and had an easy uphill birdie putt, Ruffels drained a 20-footer for birdie to close it out.
“I think it’s sinking in,” she said of the history she made. “So many people have reached out. It’s been kind of a whirlwind. But that’s why you work hard and what you hope for when you go to a championship. That’s why you play.”
Gabriela Ruffels shown reacting to a putt during the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur, which she went on to win. Photo: Steven Gibbons, Copyright USGA
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