Gabriela Ruffels Spurns Tennis, Gives Australia First U.S. Women’s Amateur Triumph
Six years ago, Gabriela Ruffels appeared ready to follow in the footsteps of her tennis-playing parents. Ray Ruffels won the 1977 Australian Open doubles title and reached the finals in mixed doubles with hall-of-famer Billie Jean King at Wimbledon and the US Open. Ann-Maria Ruffels (nee Fernandez), whose first date with Ray came during Wimbledon, won the women’s singles title at the University of Southern California before capturing five WTA doubles titles as a pro.
And Gabriela, the younger of their two children, was becoming one of Australia’s finest junior tennis players.
Then Gabriela’s older brother, Ryan, took to golf and quickly captured a pair of Australian Junior titles. That’s when Gabriela, 14 at the time, decided to trade her racket for golf clubs. She proved to be a quick enough study to draw interest from USC, where in her first two seasons, she pared two strokes off her scoring average.
But the major breakthrough wouldn’t come until summer 2018. In July, she won the prestigious North & South Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst. A month later, she took an even larger step forward.
During a sultry week in eastern Mississippi, where the mercury regularly topped 90 degrees and the heat index regularly reached triple digits, Ruffels claimed the biggest prize in the women’s amateur game. The 19-year-old from Melbourne defeated 2017 runner-up Albane Valenzuela, 21, of Switzerland, 1 up, in a thrilling 36-hole championship match at Old Waverly Golf Club.
With the victory, Ruffels became the first Australian to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship and just the fourth USC Trojan to have her name engraved on the Robert Cox Trophy.
Ruffels birdied four of the last five holes in the final, including a 10-foot downhill right-to-left curling putt on the 36th hole that clinched the title. It was a putt she needed to hole as Valenzuela, the No. 5 player in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, had stuffed her 9-iron approach to 3 feet for what likely would have been a birdie to force extra holes.
With some extra assistance from her substitute caddie, Mississippi State junior Blair Stockett, Ruffels made a perfect stroke and the ball trundled over the lip of the hole at the last second, touching off hearty applause from the 300-plus spectators surrounding the green.
One hole earlier, Ruffels had taken a 1-up lead by converting a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-3 35th hole.
Even after the prize ceremony, Ruffels remained in awe of what transpired.
“It's been kind of a blur the last 20 minutes,” said Ruffels, who rose from No. 52 to 25 in the WAGR following her win. “But this is amazing. This is what you dream of as a kid when you start playing golf. I'm still speechless.”
En route to the title, Ruffels dispatched a trio of players from Pacific-12 Conference rival Stanford University. She beat Valenzuela, a rising senior who has played in 11 major championships, as well as world No. 2 Andrea Lee, a senior who shares the Stanford record with eight collegiate wins, and incoming freshman Brooke Seay.
For Valenzuela, who needed 19 holes to beat four-time Drive, Chip & Putt finalist Megha Ganne in the semifinals, it was heartbreak again in a Women’s Amateur final after losing to Sophia Schubert at San Diego C.C.
“I mean, it's tough, and it will be even tougher tonight,” said Valenzuela, whose father was an All-American at UCLA in the mid-1980s. “But I fought really hard.”
Teenagers Jiarui Jin, whose brother, Bo, was the runner-up in the U.S. Junior Amateur three weeks earlier, and Alexa Pano shared medalist honors at 6-under 138. But Jin was ousted in the Round of 64 by No. 64 seed Emily Hawkins, and Pano fell in a memorable 23-hole, Round-of-16 match to Lee. The next day in the quarters, Lee trounced 2018 USA Curtis Cup teammate Lucy Li, 6 and 5.
Ruffels, meanwhile, credited her quick ascension to the talented and deep squad assembled at USC. Five players on last year’s roster were among the top 70 in the WAGR. At home, she was challenged by Ryan, a full-time member of PGA Tour Latinoamerica and the Mackenzie Tour-PGA Tour Canada.
And even after securing the title at Old Waverly, which earned an exemption into the 2020 U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club, Ruffels remained humble.
“Winning a championship like this gives you recognition and opportunity,” said Ruffels, “and I'm looking forward to that. But I’m still going to keep my head down and work hard. I've still got a lot of things ahead.”
|“This is what you dream of as a kid when you start playing golf. This is the biggest championship in amateur golf. I’m still speechless.” – Gabriela Ruffels|
|“It’s tough. And it will be even tougher tonight, but I fought really hard.” – Albane Valenzuela, who lost her second Women’s Amateur final|
|Albane Valenzuela entered the week at No. 5 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking, while Gabriela Ruffels was No. 52 in the WAGR.|
|It was just the third Women’s Amateur final between international players. In 2016, Eun Jeong Seong of the Republic of Korea defeated Virginia Elena Carta of Italy. The only other such final took place in 1910.|
|“I'm a proud Australian. 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.” – Gabriela Ruffels|
|Andrea Lee, No. 2 in the world, who teamed with Lucy Li to win a four-ball match in the USA’s 2018 Curtis Cup victory, ousted Li in the quarterfinals, 6 and 5. Lee one-putted six straight greens en route to the win over Li, No. 4 in the world. Li lost for the third straight time in the quarterfinals. Ruffels defeated Lee, 2 up, in the semifinals.|