WEST POINT, Miss. – Gabriela Ruffels could tell Friday morning’s quarterfinal match was different from the start.
She jumped to an early lead over Kenzie Wright with a birdie on the first hole, but Wright came to play and gave Ruffels the longest match she’s had so far at the U.S. Women’s Amateur.
Every hole that was won in the quarterfinal match was claimed with a birdie— it just came down to whom could record the most. At the 15th hole, Ruffels was 1 down and playing Old Waverly Golf Club’s final three holes for the first time since stroke play. That’s when the 19-year-old Ruffels knew she had to do “something special” as she reached the 15th hole.
She did. Ruffels finished her round with three straight birdies, earning a 2-and-1 win and a spot in the semifinal round.
“I knew that I just had to put everything in every shot and I knew that one shot here or there could make the difference,” she said. “I think luck also played a factor. On 16, I kind of hit one a little right but it somehow caught a fairway and (Wright’s shot) went in the thick rough on the right on 16, which is so hard to get out of. Kind of a little luck there, but then I kind of steadied myself there and had a good shot and I was glad to make the putt.”
The most interesting thing about Ruffels’ round is not that she won, it’s hearing about the spirit with which she won. Ruffels said she and Wright, both gunning to eliminate the other, exchanged genuine, supportive comments throughout the round.
“Every shot that we had we were saying, ‘Good shot,’ to each other,” Ruffels said. “I just really like the atmosphere and golf. It’s more respectful, kind of more nice and more relaxed and I really enjoy that.”
In fact, it’s one of the reasons she decided to pursue golf.
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Ruffels had been a tennis star raised by two former tennis professionals. Her father, Ray Ruffels, was a three-time singles semifinalist in the Australian Open and once a mixed-doubles partner with Billie Jean King. The two played Wimbledon and the 1978 U.S. Open, where they reached the final. Her mother, Anna-Maria Fernandez, won the 1981 AIAW singles title as a senior at USC — where Gabriela, or “Gabi”, is a rising junior — and was on the Trojans’ national championship teams in 1979 and 1980.
Naturally Gabi began her pursuit into athletics with tennis, as did her older brother, Ryan. She played eight years on an international level and was a top-ranked junior in Australia until the level of competition became troublesome. Tennis quickly reached a new level of intensity from which Ruffels decided to walk away.
Soon after, she discovered golf at age 15.
“I was so used to going (to tennis) every day, working hard at my tennis and I was kind of bored. I was like ‘What do I do?’” Gabi said. “Kind of being around my brother who played golf, my mom was like, ‘Let’s go to the driving range. Let’s see if you like it.’ So we went one day with my dad’s clubs and just kind of kept going every day after that.”
Gabi said Ryan, who is 21 and plays on the PGA Latinoamérica and Canadian Tours, played tennis for about four years total, but quickly fell in love with golf.
Because Ryan switched to golf earlier than Gabi, the younger sibling was able to see how different the sport is from tennis. While both are largely individual sports, there was an ease and friendliness to golf Gabi saw when her brother played that tennis didn’t have.
“I was always that little sister following him around at golf courses,” Gabi said. “I was probably at every one of his amateur tournaments because I was still pretty young at the time. I would just see him joke around with his playing partners, not really taking it too seriously, kind of staying really relaxed and I really enjoyed that part of it.
“Because with tennis you’re playing one-on-one with another opponent and it gets pretty intense. They are (your) rival and you want to beat them, and I don’t think I really liked that atmosphere.”
It’s no surprise Gabi enjoys a competitive, but not vicious, environment when it comes to sports because that’s what her home life has always reflected. Despite her family having four accomplished and competitive athletes, Gabi said her parents support their children’s golf dreams just as they would if they chose tennis.
“It’s always been pretty competitive within the family, even more now that I’m playing golf more than my brother is,” Gabi said. “I think they know the challenges and the pressures we put on ourselves as athletes, and they’ve just been really supportive throughout our careers.”
Fernandez is at Old Waverly Golf Club this week supporting her daughter, but even though she’s an accomplished athlete, she leaves the coaching to Gabi’s caddie and USC coach Justin Silverstein.
“She’s just out there every day,” Gabi said of her mother. “She’s a trooper in this heat. She’s just saying, ‘Good luck, go get it,’ not really anything about golf. But just giving me the support that I need off the course.”
|8:30 a.m.||No. 48 Megha Ganne vs. No. 13 Albane Valenzuela|
|8:45 a.m.||No. 15 Andrea Lee vs. No. 6 Gabriela Ruffels|