Ryan Ruffels' legend remains strong despite trying first year as pro

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Ryan Ruffels' legend remains strong despite trying first year as pro

PGA Tour

Ryan Ruffels' legend remains strong despite trying first year as pro

ORLANDO, Fla. – Charlie Bull will never forget the first time he met Ryan Ruffels.

The Englishman and fellow pro golfer Will Bateman were set to take part in a two-on-two match at Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in Orlando against amateur Brett Beazant and one of his friends.

Beazant’s partner would be Ruffels, a player Bull had never heard of. Bull figured he and Bateman had a good chance to dominate. Oh, did that mindset evaporate quickly.

“After two holes, Charlie turned to me and said, ‘Dude, I didn’t know you were going to bring Tiger Woods,’ ” Beazant said, with a laugh.

That day, Ruffels made a double bogey and two bogeys. And still shot 63. He and Beazant won big.

Roughly a year later, Ruffels is at Bay Hill Club & Lodge, returning to the site of one of his first PGA Tour starts as a pro. Ruffels will tee it up Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, set to compete in his first PGA Tour event since the Memorial Tournament last June.

The Australian turned pro at age 17 last January to much fanfare. Long touted as the country’s next big thing, and often drawing comparisons to Jason Day, Ruffels was expected to flourish as soon as he reached the pro ranks.

Not all went according to plan, though, in a bizarre, unlucky and difficult 2016.

As a nonmember, Ruffels could use seven sponsor invites to PGA Tour events for the 2015-16 season. He made four of seven cuts but didn’t do nearly enough to earn his card for the big circuit.

He didn’t do enough to make the Web.com Tour Finals, either. And he was booted from the first stage of Web.com Tour Q-School, too.

By year’s end, Ruffels had to go down to PGA Tour Latinoamerica to earn starts.

“At some points, I’m like, ‘Gee, I feel my game’s good enough to be on the PGA Tour. What am I doing out here?’ ” Ruffels said.

The Aussie returns to the Arnold Palmer Invitational a year later no closer to the PGA Tour, but he’s not even the slightest deterred.

In fact, Ruffels is excited to be back in a similar spot to last year. The 18-year-old once again can use sponsor invites for seven PGA Tour events, and he expects he’ll get the chance. On top of this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, Ruffels already has a few more PGA Tour starts lined up in the coming months.

He’ll continue on PGA Tour Latinoamerica in between PGA Tour stops, but if he performs well – doing enough to qualify for Web.com Tour Finals or even earn his PGA Tour card – early in the big tour starts, he’ll focus his play back in the U.S.

By results, 2016 may have been a letdown. But Ruffels’ confidence hasn’t cratered. He just may need a little more fortune this year.

Along with seven PGA Tour starts, starting with his pro debut at the Farmers Insurance Open, Ruffels competed in roughly a half-dozen Monday qualifiers for PGA Tour events in 2016.

After closing bogey-double bogey-par at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational to miss the cut by one, Ruffels embarked on a Monday qualifier for the Puerto Rico Open at TPC Dorado Beach’s East Course. He shot 3-under 69, putting him in a six-way tie for the fourth and final spot in the field from the qualifier.

On the first playoff hole, the 437-yard par-4 18th, Ruffels popped up a drive some 190 yards but blasted a 3-wood onto the green and rolled in a 40-footer for birdie. After four of his playing competitors failed to match, all Ruffels needed to get into the field was for Bo Hoag to whiff on a 15-footer. The ball didn’t look like it was dropping until it trickled into the cup on the high (left) side at the last second.

The duo returned to the tee, and Ruffels hit a beautiful second shot inside 10 feet. Then Hoag dropped his 40-footer for birdie. Ruffels missed and the spot went to Hoag.

“The most unpleasant experience in the world,” said Ruffels, on that loss.

It was one of three playoff defeats in Monday qualifiers, which Ruffels mostly went to after exhausting his seven PGA Tour starts. Another playoff occurred in a six-for-two bout at the Travelers Championship – where he had a 5-footer for birdie on the first playoff hole (No. 1 at Connecticut’s Ellington Ridge Country Club). He pushed it and the ball never hit the hole.

As it turns out, making that putt would’ve gotten him in the field. He bowed out on the next hole. Days later, Ruffels, who had been playing Nike clubs, learned of the company’s exit from the club-making business.

“That was a weird week,” said Ruffels, who has since switched to TaylorMade equipment for all but his putter. “The whole week was kind of like, ‘Geez, what am I going to do now?’ ”

But, even after getting through zero qualifiers, the worst was yet to come. When Ruffels finished up at the Memorial, he figured he’d be around 200th (as a nonmember) on the FedEx Cup points list by the end of the PGA Tour’s regular season in August at the Wyndham Championship if he failed to gain more starts through the qualifiers.

Finishing the equivalent of 200th or better in FedEx Cup points would have gotten Ruffels a spot into Web.com Tour Finals.

He was out at Isleworth Golf & Country Club in Windermere, Fla., with Bull, Beazant and Sierra Brooks, now a freshman on the Wake Forest women’s golf team, during the final round of the Wyndham Championship, frantically checking his phone as he tried to follow along whether he’d sneak through.

It came down to fellow Aussie Rhein Gibson facing a 14-foot par putt on his final hole. Miss it, and Ruffels was into the Web.com Tour Finals. Make, and Ruffels fell short.

Fittingly, Gibson drained the putt.

“That one was pretty hard to get over,” Ruffels said.

A devastated Ruffels needed a few days for the blow to settle. But he never got bitter about his bad luck, only that he hadn’t done more.

“The only thing he told me: ‘If I just made the cut at Bay Hill, I would have been fine,’ ” Beazant said.

The following months weren’t an easy time, but Ruffels remained optimistic, and his positive outlook worked out. After 15 weeks off from competition, Ruffels accepted a sponsor invite to the PGA Tour Latinoamerica’s Ecuador Open. He finished T-2 that September week to earn status on that tour.

After his first stage exit at Q-School, Ruffels would grab three top-five finishes in five more starts to place 22nd on the 2016 Latinoamerica money list and bring his spirits back up. So far in 2017, Ruffels has made two PGA Tour Latinoamerica starts and last month missed out by a shot in a Monday qualifier for the Web.com Tour’s Panama Claro Championship.

Ryan Ruffels (Enrique Berardi/PGA TOUR)

Fourteen months after his pro debut, Ruffels feels he’s a better player more prepared for the opportunity at hand with PGA Tour starts. Two weeks ago, he began working with sports psychologist Neale Smith as insurance for his mental game.

Ruffels still awes those around him, too. His combination of extreme length, high ball flight, shot-making and composure all in an 18-year-old is tough to replicate.

Yes, friends are loyal, but it would be understandable if their faith had dipped a little considering this first year.

It hasn’t an iota.

“There’s no doubt that he’s going to win a PGA Tour event in the next 2-3 years,” said Beazant, now a 19-year-old pro golfer.

Bull, a Mackenzie Tour player, has played with Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter, but even now Ruffels still grades out above them.

“I still stand by this,” Bull said. “Ryan’s the best golfer I’ve ever played with in my life.”

Bull was a believer from Day One. That 63 Ruffels posted on him in their initial meeting stuck with the 25-year-old, to say the least.

Enthralled by the Aussie’s game, Bull searched Ruffels’ name and learned of his projection as a prodigy. Bull proceeded to call up a friend back home in England to ask betting company bet365 about quoting him on Ruffels winning a major before age 30 and becoming World No. 1 before age 30.

The company wouldn’t accept any bets here.

“They said no, it’s too likely it’ll happen,” Bull said.

Maybe the path there will start this week.

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