RYAN Ruffels is finding it difficult to concentrate on his Year 12 homework. It could be the promising professional golf career he’s 18 months from embarking on. But it’s been this way since November 2013 when, at 15 years of age, he became one of the youngest ever golfers to make the cut at the Australian Open.
Or, it could be the fact some of the world’s best golfers are eagerly tracking his amateur career. English essays and algebra aren’t as exciting as text messages from world No.2 Rory McIlroy: “You remind me of myself nine years ago.” Or polite phone calls from Phil Mickelson: “Ryan, I’d really appreciate it if you considered joining the Arizona State University golf team after high school.”
These are the academic hurdles Ruffels must overcome if he is to obtain a Victorian Certificate of Education.
Speaking with Australian Golf Digest in June, the distraction was a Sunday night flight to Scotland. He’d read about St Andrews. Of the aura of the Home of Golf. The champions immortalised on its sacred fairways. The 17-year-old was gearing up for the prestigious St Andrews Links Trophy, but he’d soon learn a hard lesson on golf’s unpredictability when inclement weather saw the Trophy’s cut enforced after 18 holes and Ruffels missed out by a shot.
But how did Ruffels’ parents feel about him missing an addition 11 weeks of school to play the British Amateur, French Open and British Open qualifying? “I’ll be getting schoolwork done on the plane,” says Ruffels with a laugh.
“My parents are strict with my schooling, but they’re cool with me going away because I’m doing well at school and I’m looking to turn pro at the end of 2016, so I need this experience in the UK,” says Ruffels.
Ray and AnnaMaria Ruffels – both former pro tennis players – have allowed golf to be Ryan’s priority since he famously fought back from an opening-round 77 to finish tied 24th at the 2013 Australian Open.
“That was a big one for me; that’s where it all started,” recalls Ruffels. “I felt a little out of my depth in pro golf … but to put in a performance like that at the Australian Open was huge for me. I knew I wanted to be a pro golfer but didn’t know how realistic my chances were of that coming true.”
That week at Royal Sydney also brought a chance encounter with McIlroy. During a practice round, the pair hit it off – one child prodigy playing with another who’d graduated from the ‘Next Big Thing’ to ‘The Real Deal’.
“Rory has been a great mentor for me; I’ve played a couple times with him and got to know him well. We talk every couple of months and he says I remind him of himself nine years ago. It’d be nice if I could follow a similar path,” says Ruffels.
“He’s teaching me how to manage expectation as a young guy. It gives you a lot of confidence that someone like that in the world of golf not only knows who you are, but sees potential as well.”
The Northern Irishman isn’t the only golf identity aware of Ruffels’ infinite potential. Before the 2014 Aussie summer events, Ruffels received a phone call from five-times Major champion Mickelson.
“I know Tim Mickelson (Arizona State’s golf coach and brother of Phil) pretty well. He told me there was a new assistant coach who wanted to talk to me,” says Ruffels.
“He passes the phone to Phil. They both have the same voice, so I thought it was a prank, but it was real. Phil talked about the benefits of going to Arizona State and said he was going to keep an eye on me.”
Lefty kept his promise, calling Ruffels to congratulate him on his T17 at the 2014 Aussie Masters and T28 at the Australian Open.
“It was great that a three-times Masters winner showed interest in me and it is an excellent system; so many good players come out of it. But college wasn’t for me,” says Ruffels.
The Victoria Golf Club member wants to remain in what he calls “Australia’s Home of Golf.” Some thought Ruffels would take the college route, given the US is somewhat home for the 2014 Callaway World Junior champion – he was born in Florida and raised in southern California until the age of 11. It’s where he fell in love with golf, and where he recorded 2-under par in his first nine-hole tournament.
“Between the (Golf Australia) national squad and the Victorian Institute of Sport, we’ve got our foundations here – my coach, physios, strength and conditioning coaches and psychologists. I’m better off staying around the people who got me to where I am,” says Ruffels.
Looking ahead, the amateur world No.15 – once labelled ‘Australia’s brightest talent since Jason Day’ – says he won’t join the paid ranks until the end of 2016.
“I have to be 18 to get a tour card and my birthday is in April. My plan is to play this year and 2016 as an amateur and when the tour schools are on, I’ll look to turn pro.”
Ruffels believes his support team, spearheaded by coach Denis McDade, can help him achieve his ultimate goals.
“I don’t want sound cocky but the only time you’ll ever be satisfied is winning a Major or being No.1 in the world,” says Ruffels. “I know it’ll take an incredible amount of hard work but that’s my biggest goal.”
It doesn’t sound cocky. After all, McIlroy said something similar at age 17: “I want to win Majors, play in Ryder Cups and win the Order of Merit.”
Perhaps that’s why Ruffels reminds McIlroy of himself.
9 Things You Didn’t Know About Ryan Ruffels
• He speaks fluent Spanish. “Very handy in southern California.”
• His favourite activity off the course is skiing, “Despite the risk.”
• Collingwood Magpies are his “biggest passion outside golf.”
• He follows Tottenham in the EPL.
• His first golf club was a present from 1998 Masters and British Open champion Mark O’Meara.
• Aged 10, he was the No.1-ranked under-12s tennis player in southern California.
• Father Ray Ruffels was a Davis Cup tennis player and doubles Grand Slam winner.
• Mother AnnaMaria Fernandez-Ruffels won five WTA Tour titles.
• He believes Victoria GC is the best Sandbelt layout. “I’m a little biased.
Driver: 275 metres