U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR
Son of former professional tennis players gravitates to golf July 21, 2013 By David Shefter, USGA

Ryan Ruffels is competing in his first USGA championship this week at the U.S. Junior Amateur. But with parents who are both former tennis professionals, he's been taught how to handle the stress. (USGA/Steve Gibbons)

TRUCKEE, Calif. – There are scrapbooks and other mementos from his parents’ exploits on the professional tennis circuit at home, but Ryan Ruffels has never had the desire to peruse them.

Sure, he’s heard plenty of stories. His father, Ray, is a three-time Australian Open semifinalist and was the runner-up at Wimbledon in 1978 in mixed doubles with Hall of Famer Billie Jean King, while his mother, AnnaMaria Ruffels (nee Fernandez), won a national college singles championship for the University of Southern California and five WTA titles as a pro.

 But those accomplishments came well before Ryan was born in April 1998.

Ruffels, 15, dabbled in tennis and briefly was ranked No. 1 for his age group in Southern California. Eventually, however, he gravitated to golf, a game that didn’t require running or physical punishment on his knees.

And when he finished third as a 10-year-old at a nine-hole tournament at Birch Hills Golf Course, a par-29 executive layout in Brea, Calif., a passion was born.

With golf, he doesn’t have to hear outsiders wonder if he’ll be as good as his parents, though he admits his parents never pressured him to play tennis. He just loved golf, even if he had to get past a few stereotypes. 

I first thought it was a sport for old people, said Ruffels, who carded a 4-over 76 in the first round of stroke-play qualifying on Monday at the 2013 U.S. Junior Amateur at Martis Camp Club. That was the stereotype back then.  

For me, seeing a perfect drive or a shot land up next to the hole or sinking a long putt is what I really enjoy. I enjoy them more than hitting a passing shot in tennis.

Yet it was tennis that brought his parents together. Ray grew up in Australia and was picked for the Australian National Team in 1965. He turned pro just as the open era in tennis was beginning and eventually won 16 doubles titles. He played World Team Tennis with King for the New York Apples and the two formed a mixed doubles partnership for all the major championships in 1978. They lost the Wimbledon final to Frew McMillan and Betty Stove, and reached the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

AnnaMaria, who is from Torrance, Calif., became a three-time All-American at USC, helping the Trojans win Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women (AIAW) team tennis titles in 1979 and 1980. She added an AIAW singles title in 1981 before turning professional.

Ruffels had retired from the tour and was coaching when he met AnnaMaria – the couple’s first date came during Wimbledon – and after they got married, they served as teaching pros at Isleworth in Orlando, Fla., where Ryan was later born.

During that time, they also took up golf. AnnaMaria even qualified for the 1993 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur (where she missed the cut) five years before she gave birth to Ryan. Daughter Gabriela, now 13, was born two years later. Gabriela has since become a top-flight junior tennis player in Australia.

In 2000, the family moved to the Los Angeles area when Ray landed a job with the United States Tennis Association (USTA). It was then that Ryan discovered his passion for golf.

Since moving back to Australia four years ago when his father took a coaching position with Tennis Australia, Ryan has developed into one of Australia’s top junior golfers. Earlier this year, he reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Amateur and was runner-up at the Australian Junior.

Now a member of the Australian National Team, which includes four boys and a girl, Ryan has had the opportunity to play in South Africa (Ten Nations Cup) and Japan as well as receiving funding to travel to the U.S. to compete in elite junior events such as the U.S. Junior Amateur, his first USGA championship. Unfortunately for Ruffels, he barely missed getting inside the Top 400 (he was No. 401) in the World Amateur Golf Ranking at the close of entries on May 29 to gain an exemption from qualifying.

So the family flew to Washington last month and Ryan earned medalist honors at the Gold Mountain Golf Club sectional qualifier in Bremerton, Wash., shooting 136 on the Olympic Course, which hosted the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur. Ruffels’ caddie at sectionals was Corry Campbell, a local, and the two had such good chemistry that he’s utilizing him this week at Martis Camp.

Through 11 holes on Monday, everything seemed to be going well for Ruffels. He was one under par and near the top of the leader board, but he made five bogeys over his last seven holes.

I didn’t quite hit it the way I wanted to today, said Ruffels, knowing he’ll need a solid score in Tuesday’s second round to qualify for match play. Some putts didn’t drop and I just hit a few loose shots.

If anyone understands the ebb and flow of what Ruffels experienced on Monday, it’s his parents. They understand there will be days when things just don’t click.

They also have been supportive of his golf while keeping his summer tournament schedule light. His only two U.S. events have been this week’s Junior Amateur and last week’s Junior World at Torrey Pines near San Diego, where he finished tied for seventh in the 15-18-year-old division.

We just want to give them opportunities and go from there, said AnnaMaria. We enjoy giving them opportunities. In a way, they have better opportunities than what we had.

Before going back to school in Melbourne, Australia, Ryan will check out two California universities: Stanford and USC, his mom’s alma mater. Ryan, who will complete 10th grade in December, wants to play college golf in the U.S. A few college coaches were following him on Monday, most notably Stanford’s Conrad Ray.

You’ve got to have good grades to get into Stanford, said Ryan. I do take my schoolwork on the road, but it’s tough when you are playing tournament after tournament. There’s not much time in the day to get it in.

I think my mom would like me to go to USC. She definitely would not be against me going to USC. It’s just whatever school is best for my golf and education.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email me at dshefter@usga.org.

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