Gabriela Ruffels (USGA/Steve Gibbons)
Amazingly, Gabriela Ruffels has only been playing golf for five years. The former competitive tennis player gave up her first sport as a 14-year-old, concentrated on golf and now, as a 19-year-old about to enter her junior season at USC, has won the biggest title – and arguably the prettiest trophy – in all of women’s amateur golf.
Ruffels had no small task ahead of her when she showed up Sunday morning to go head-to-head with Albane Valenzuela, runner-up here in 2017, for 36 holes at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss. They needed every one of those allotted holes.
It’s funny how a marathon match can work out. There were many plot twists throughout the day – such as Ruffels being 3 down after 11 holes – but after 34 holes, the pair stood exactly as they had on the first tee Sunday morning: tied.
“Actually towards the middle I was struggling a lot,” Ruffels said. “I told my caddie that it was very hot, and I got my umbrella on the last nine, and that really helped. Just kind of maintaining energy levels was hard, but I just kind of got in like a new wind towards the end. I think the adrenaline kind of kicked in.”
Both of Ruffels' parents are former tennis professionals. Dad Ray was a mixed double finalist at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1978 with hall-of-famer Billie Jean King. Mom Ann-Maria won the 1981 AIAW national collegiate singles title as a USC senior.
Ruffels was perhaps most influenced – at least in golf – by her older brother Ryan, who turned pro at 17 and now competes on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica and Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada. Ruffels also hopes to play professionally.
In the last year at USC, Ruffels shaved two strokes off her season scoring average. She was admittedly raw when she arrived on the Trojan roster.
After the summer that Ruffels has had, it’s hard to see how anyone could describe her as raw anymore. Last month, she won the North & South Women’s Amateur (also in match play) at Pinehurst No. 2, site of next week’s U.S. Amateur. The year before at that event, she had finished runner-up.
Ruffels’ coach at USC, Justin Silverstein, is a savvy, number-crunching, attention-to-detail kind of guy. Silverstein also carried the bag for Ruffels throughout the week. They talked extensively throughout Ruffels’ long road to the championship match. He was a good voice to have in her head.
Until he wasn’t.
Because of a death in the family, Silverstein had to make an early exit in Sunday’s final match to make it home for a Monday funeral. He carried the bag until the last possible second, when he had to skate for his flight. When that time came, Ruffels still had four holes to play. Mississippi State player Blair Stockett, who had caddied for Lucy Li earlier in the week, stepped in.
Ruffels is an Australian, and thus measures her distances in meters. Luckily, Silverstein had slipped Stockett a piece of paper that had the distance of each of Ruffels’ clubs, in meters.
“We never even spoke about yards because my laser is meters,” Ruffels said.
In the end, Ruffels stuffed it close at the par-3 17th, the 35th hole of the day, and birdied to take a 1-up advantage to the closing hole.
Ruffels stuffed another approach at that final par 4, and knew she had to make the putt there considering that Valenzuela’s ball was sitting just 3 feet from the hole after a laser-like 9-iron. Stockett told her the putt would break more than it looked. It curled in at the last second.
“Albane, towards the end, was playing really well,” Ruffels said. “I knew she was going to make that. She's a really good putter and really clutch towards the end. So yeah, I knew I had to make that putt.”
For Valenzuela, a second runner-up finish in the span of three years carried some sting, but the mature Stanford player was able to keep it in perspective. The approach at the 36th hole will stick in her mind.
“I’m really proud of myself for doing that,” said Valenzuela. “I think that shows that I can play golf. You know, under pressure I was able to hit the shot I wanted, and gave myself an opportunity, and she hit a wonderful putt and she had a great birdie on 17, so kudos to her.”
As for Ruffels, she became the first Australian to hoist the Robert Cox Trophy. She also is the 11th player from her country to win a USGA championship, joining the likes of Karrie Webb, Minjee Lee, Jan Stephenson and David Graham.
“I'm a proud Australian,” she said. “That's where I started playing golf. I have such a huge support system back there, and to win it not only for myself but everyone back home is huge, and it just means the world.”
After the match, Ruffels took a FaceTime phone call from her brother, who watched every shot on Sunday from Canada (tweeting frequently throughout the day). Little sis could hardly find the words.
“This is what you dream of as a kid when you start playing golf, winning tournaments like this,” she said. “This is the biggest championship in amateur golf. I'm still speechless. But I guess that shows how much it means to me.”
Quotes and information from the USGA used in this report