Gabi Ruffels on switching from tennis to golf, growing up in two different countries and the big (but nice) decision looming in 2020.
Gabi Ruffels | 19 | Melbourne & LA | US Women’s Amateur Champion
Gabi Ruffels comes from a tennis powerhouse. Her father, Ray Ruffels, reached the mixed doubles final with Billie Jean King at Wimbledon and the US Open in 1978. Ruffels’ mother, AnnaMaria Fernandez, was a University of South California tennis great who was a member of the Trojans’ two-time American national championship-winning team, before winning three WTA doubles titles as a professional.
Gabi was set to follow in her parents’ footsteps until walking away from an elite junior tennis career, aged 15, to focus on her true sporting love: golf. Four years later, Gabi became the first Australian to win the US Women’s Amateur. It capped a stellar year for Ruffels, who also won the prestigious North & South Championship and Windy City Collegiate events. Now she’s set to follow her older brother Ryan into the world of professional golf.
From the moment my winning putt at the US Women’s Amateur Championship dropped, the support has been just incredible. I can never thank those people enough for reaching out and making that moment one of the most special of my life.
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One of the best congratulations floating around at the time came from Karrie Webb. First, I read her tweet that said something along the lines of, ‘When I grow up I want to hit my irons like Gabi Ruffels.’ I screenshotted it and just stared at it for five minutes. It was so cool. Then, I read a story where she said she thought I could go a long way in this game. That really inspired me. To have someone of Karrie’s calibre – and what she has achieved in golf – say the sky is the limit for me is humbling.
“To have someone of Karrie’s calibre – and what she has achieved in golf – say the sky is the limit for me is humbling.” – Gabi Ruffels
It’s amazing how many people at the University of Southern California heard about my win. Even my professor from my journalism class came up and congratulated me. I didn’t really know him before that, but in the first five minutes of a lecture he introduced himself and put up a picture of an article about my win – in front of the 100 people or so in the lecture. That was pretty cool.
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I’m a pretty grounded person and I don’t think I will rest on my laurels. It was fun to soak up that victory for about two days, but then I realised I still have work to do. If anything, it’s made me hungrier to work harder. I love where I’m at in my amateur career right now: I love my school and I love my USC golf team. Now, this part of the year is about focusing on school but at the same time keeping my game sharp.
“It was fun to soak up that victory for about two days, but then I realised I still have work to do.”
– Gabi Ruffels
I watched the Augusta National Women’s Amateur Championship this year and it was an amazing event. It was definitely one of my goals to try to get in, and I did earn an exemption with my US Amateur win. It’s sad, though, as there is a conflict, given it’s at the same time as the ANA Inspiration [the first LPGA Major of the year, in California]. I also got into ANA with the US Women’s Amateur win, so I will have a decision to make whether to play at Augusta or the ANA. I still haven’t made my decision yet. I’ll talk to my coaches and my family about it, but everyone has been saying it’s a good decision to have to make.
I’ve had some great victories this year and my game has really gone up a level. I get asked why, and I keep going back to my team here at USC. It’s such a competitive team. We have six players who are in the top 70 in the world and only five get to travel to tournaments. Just to make the team is really, really hard. We have qualifying for the team every week and even that is very intense. Having that competitive atmosphere day in, day out has pushed me to work harder. I feel I’ve really stepped up this year.
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American colleges are great preparation for the LPGA Tour. There is no better competition for my age. USC has produced a lot of LPGA players and it’s no real surprise why. Everything here is at such a world-class level – the facilities, the coaching staff, the courses we get to play at and the school itself. It’s such a great pathway to take because, in Australia, you play the same tournaments against the same people. While the competition is great there, over here I’m playing against [Switzerland’s] Albane Valenzuela and Andrea Lee. They’re both from Stanford, and all the top amateur golfers in the world are in colleges in the US. Measuring my game against them each week has made me more motivated and hungry to work harder. I’m originally from southern California; I grew up there for the first nine years of my life. Coming back to the US for college just felt like I was coming to my second home. Also, my parents moved back to southern California, so it didn’t feel like I was so different from home.
Back in Australia, I was a top-ranked junior tennis player. At 14 years of age, I decided to do home schooling and go through the national tennis academy at Melbourne Park. At such a young age, it was an intense regime – we would work out for two hours in the morning, then go to practice for two hours, then have school for three hours, get back in the gym in the afternoon, and then practise again after that. It was a lot for a teenager and there were only a few kids in that program. So, it wasn’t like you were seeing a whole lot of people and it was kind of like living in a bubble of tennis, tennis, tennis. My mum always said that with tennis, she never felt I wanted to practise. But in golf I was always bugging her to take me to the golf course. From the moment I started playing golf, I wanted to go out and work on my game all the time.
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My first handicap was 30 and I played at Victoria Golf Club. Seeing it come down all the time while playing in weekend comps was really motivating. In a year-and-a-half of playing, I got my handicap down to 2. It was so cool. Making the Victorian state team also gave me a lot of confidence. After two years of playing, I made the junior and senior Victorian teams and that was cool because I knew my game was good enough to compete with the best in the state. I started to wonder, How far can I take this? I’ve always had a good work ethic and I always wanted to give 100 per cent. Now we’re here.
I’m not really big on laying down plans, or specific goals of what tournaments I want to win before I turn pro. I like little goals within the game – like hitting more fairways, having fewer putts and letting everything else take care of itself. I never told myself I wanted to win the US Women’s Amateur or win three college tournaments in a year. I just want to do well all the time. My immediate goal is to get a degree at USC and work towards a professional golf career.
Gabi Ruffels spoke with Evin Priest