It took Gabi Ruffels less than five years to transition from the heights of the junior tennis world into the history books of another sport entirely. Introducing one of Australia’s brightest young stars ...
Gabi Ruffels was about to do something no Australian had ever done before.
The 19-year-old daughter of former tennis professionals – Ray Ruffels and Anna-Maria Fernandez – was moments away from winning the US Women’s Amateur Championship. All that stood between her and the Robert Cox Trophy was 12 feet of slick, beautifully manicured turf.
As her ball rolled end over end towards the 36th hole at Old Waverly Golf Club in Mississippi, her mother – once ranked as high as No.19 in the women’s world tennis rankings – watched on nervously from underneath an umbrella behind the green.
The right-to-left putt was slippery. But it had been played with such grace that it caught the edge of the cup and tumbled out of sight.
Ruffels – who was born in Florida, raised in Melbourne and now resides in Southern California – had birdied four of her last five holes to defeat Switzerland’s Albane Valenzuela, the fifth-ranked player in the World Amateur Golf Rankings.
Fifteen metres away, Anna-Maria dropped her umbrella and hurled her arms into the air in celebration. Her daughter, an elite junior tennis player just five years ago, had captured one of the most prestigious amateur titles in the world of golf.
“Winning the US Amateur was probably the best feeling of my life,” Ruffels told Golf Australia magazine.
“I was trying not to think about it during the week – but a lot of people were asking me questions about being the first Australian to win it, and obviously I wanted to do that. I was so happy when I was able to get it done.”
The sophomore at the University of Southern California also claimed the North & South Women’s Amateur Championship at Pinehurst earlier this year, defeating fellow Aussie amateur Doey Choi. Which is quite impressive when you consider Ruffels had never played 18 holes of golf until 2014.
“It has been a crazy kind of summer,” laughed Ruffels, who was ranked No.21 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings at the time of writing.
“I played my first-ever round of golf in December of 2014 at Rolling Hills Country Club in Los Angeles. I played with my dad’s clubs. I didn’t even have my own set of clubs.
“I played tennis until I was 14 and then one day I said, ‘I’m not really enjoying this anymore, I’ve lost interest.’ I just kind of got burnt out. So I took a break from tennis and wasn’t really doing much. But I was so used to being active, sitting on the couch wasn’t my idea of fun, so my mum took me to the driving range and I wanted to keep going back and back.
“My parents have always been very supportive, whether it be tennis or golf, and they were really supportive of my decision to stop playing tennis. They could’ve said, ‘No, you’ve gone this far already, keep playing.’ But they’ve always been super supportive of me and my brother, which is really, really nice.”
Her 21-year-old brother, Ryan – who turned professional when he was 17 and now competes on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica and Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour of Canada – was quick to congratulate his sister on her title victory.
“Never. Been. Prouder,” he wrote on Twitter, having first attempted to fly to Mississippi overnight to caddie for Gabi after her coach, Justin Silverstein, had to give up her bag midway through the championship match to attend a funeral.
“To step away from tennis five years ago because you wanted to pursue something you had more of a passion for is a very gutsy call for a 14-year-old to make. Hard work, and now look at you. US AM CHAMP! I’m lost for words.”
Seven-time major champion Karrie Webb – just one of Ruffels’ many mentors (more on that later) – also expressed her admiration, tweeting: “Wahoo! Huge congrats to Gabi Ruffels on winning the US Women’s AM! Unbelievable finish … Birdies on four of the last five to win it! When I grow up I want to hit my irons like Gabi!”
Then there was Australia’s highest-ranked player, Minjee Lee, who wrote: “Congrats
Gabi Ruffels! Great job! So clutch! So awesome to follow!!”
Ruffels could be forgiven for letting such powerful words go to her head. But they haven’t. Quite the contrary, in fact.
The well-spoken business student – who earnt exemptions into the 2020 US Women’s Open, ANA Inspiration, Women’s British Open, Evian Championship and Augusta National Women’s Amateur with her US Women’s Amateur victory – has remained completely level-headed about her professional ambitions.
“My immediate goal is to graduate college. I have two years left and I really want to finish that,” said Ruffels, who completed secondary school at Haileybury College in Melbourne.
“After that, I would like to turn pro. I would like to play on the LPGA Tour. But I don’t really have any huge goals. I just want to see how things progress.
“I never really set myself huge goals like, ‘I want to win the US Amateur’ or ‘I want to win this tournament’.” – Gabi Ruffels
“I think that’s why I’ve done well as an amateur. I never really set myself huge goals like, ‘I want to win the US Amateur’ or ‘I want to win this tournament’. I have more immediate goals, and I like seeing how everything pans out.”
One of those immediate goals is to compete in Australia for the first time since 2017. And our game’s governing body, Golf Australia, is understandably eager to make that happen.
“I’ve been speaking to some of the Golf Australia people back home and they would love for me to come back to Australia and play some tournaments in 2020. My parents moved to California when I first started college and I haven’t been back to Australia since,” said Ruffels, whose father, Ray, was a three-time Australian Open semi-finalist and once reached the Wimbledon mixed doubles final partnering Billie Jean King.
“I’ve been looking at playing either the Vic Open or the Australian Open. I was also looking at the Australian Master of the Amateurs. I know there are three pretty good tournaments lined up in a row, so it depends on school and what I can miss. But I’m definitely looking forward to coming back.”
The Victoria Golf Club member would certainly make an exciting inclusion to any of the aforementioned events. But should she only be able to commit to one, let’s hope it’s the Vic Open so we can witness the potential curtain-raising exhibition match of the Ruffels siblings against Minjee and Min Woo Lee.
The concept of the match was coined by Golf Australia magazine’s Architecture Editor Mike Clayton. The former touring professional suggested via social media that the Lees – Minjee the reigning Greg Norman Medallist and Min Woo the European Tour member – might have Gabi and Ryan covered as the best brother/sister duo in Australia.
“I do think it could happen, that would be awesome, I mean that would be really, really cool. Who do I think would win? Well obviously I have to favour my brother and I, don’t I?” Ruffels laughed.
“But I think it would be a great match and I think they were saying maybe before the Vic Open. Which would be pretty cool if we were all playing that.”
Pretty cool indeed. Anyway. Throughout our conversation, Ruffels continually referred back to the impressive “support network” she has in place. In addition to her incredibly successful family, Ruffels has the likes of Karrie Webb, Victoria Golf Club, Golf Australia and the University of Southern California all in her corner.
“I have a really great support network both in the US and Australia,” Ruffels explained.
“Karrie has obviously done such a great job with rising Australian girl golfers and it’s really cool to have that mentor relationship with her. I miss Victoria Golf Club. It has always offered me such huge support – and I’m so grateful that it continues to do so, even when I’m over here.
“Coming to a school like USC, where the competition, not only between other schools but even between my teammates, is world-class, has made me get so much better.” – Gabi Ruffels
“Coming to college, I have that support network too now. I feel like I’ve just really improved since being here and it was probably the best decision that I could’ve made after finishing high school. And even though I’m over here, I also feel the support from Golf Australia.”
Another source of support comes direct from the LPGA Tour and some of its established Australian stars, including major-winner Hannah Green and five-time Tour winner Minjee Lee.
“I know Hannah pretty well. I actually had dinner with her when she was in LA for the LA Open at the start of the year. So I got to see her there and she sent me a text when I won the US Amateur, so that was nice,” Ruffels said.
“I also know Minjee quite well because our families are pretty good friends. Min Woo has stayed over at our house many times and Minjee has stayed at our house in California as well, so we’ve always been pretty close.”
Having pre-existing relationships with such successful Australian players will obviously only benefit Ruffels as her career progresses, especially if she does end up playing on the LPGA Tour.
The individual nature of our sport has often led to players – both male and female – commenting on how lonely it can be when they’re out on Tour. But Ruffels’ friendly and competitive nature should stand her in good stead moving forward – and it is already serving her well at the University of Southern California.
“I guess playing golf and tennis, they’re both individual sports, but I feel like the team atmosphere in college has helped me enormously,” Ruffels said.
“Coming to a school like USC, where the competition, not only between other schools but even between my teammates, is world-class, has made me get so much better.
“It’s made me work harder and it’s pushed me more … I’ve realised how good everyone else is around the world.”
With that history-making US Women’s Amateur victory already under her belt, people are beginning to say that very same thing about Gabi Ruffels; one of Australia’s brightest young stars.