One of the most anticipated debuts at next week’s Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona involves one of the most heralded amateurs in the game, a young woman with a backstory that reads like a Hollywood script.
Gabi Ruffels, the University of Southern California standout who, just a couple of weeks ago, was the fifth-ranked amateur in the world, will hit her first competitive shot as a pro on Thursday at Lake Nona.
The 20-year-old is playing Gainbride on a sponsor’s exemption, which is where many of her opportunities in the professional ranks will originate.
“I have an exemption into the ANA (Inspiration) and I received this Gainbridge exemption,” Ruffels told LPGA.com. “I’m trying to get as many sponsors’ exemptions as possible. I just got an exemption into a Epson Tour event after ANA. And I just heard that Monday qualifiers are coming back on the LPGA Tour, so I’ll try to do those and play in as many events as I can get into.”
It’s a longshot to be sure. But if anyone can pull off the extraordinary, it’s Ruffels. She’s been doing it her entire life.
A natural athlete, Ruffels was the top-ranked junior tennis player in Australia, traveling the world and winning junior titles from the age of 10. Tennis was a family affair. Her mother, Anna-Maria Fernandez was a star at USC who won five WTA titles in her career, reaching as high as 19th in the world rankings. Her father, Ray Ruffels, was a Davis Cup player who won eight singles titles and reached No. 27 in the world.
But as a teenager, Gabi walked away from the courts. She said she didn’t love tennis enough to keep up the intensity. Her older brother, Ryan, had done the same thing, putting away the racquet and picking up golf clubs.
So, at age 15, Gabi played golf for the very first time.
Six years later, with a North and South Women’s Amateur title to her credit and the distinction of being the only Australian to ever win the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Gabi will give professional golf a try.
“Obviously, it was a tough decision because I only had one more semester of eligibility in college,” Ruffels said. “I was wondering, should I stay and maybe try to win an NCAA (title)? But I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while. And with COVID, things kind of changed. I think without COVID, I probably would have stayed (in school). But with COVID and me doing all my classes online, I figured I could go to classes online and finish my degree. And I might as well get out there and play as a pro.”
Nike signed her quickly. The folks in Eugene recognize an athlete when they see her. And no matter how many professional starts she’s able to cobble together, Gabi will remain active and have plenty of support.
“I still have my place in L.A.” she said. “My parents live in the desert, in Indian Wells (California), and I’m a member at Toscana (Country Club) out there. I also just joined Isleworth (in Windermere, Florida) so I’ll have a base (on both coasts). I think, for the first couple of years at least, I’ll be spending some time in California and some time (in Florida).”
She seems remarkably poised. But what else would you expect from a woman who, not quite six full years after her first swing, will make her first swing as a pro?
“(Ryan) told me that it’s going to be tough out there,” Gabi said of the advice she got from her brother, who also gave up tennis to play golf and now competes on the Korn Ferry Tour. “We all talked about it as a family. They all wanted me to make my own decision. Everyone wanted the decision to come from me, which it did.
“Ryan said, ‘It’s not going to be a walk in the park, especially when you don’t have any status.’ But he also said that I should just go work hard and enjoy it. Have fun. And that’s what I plan to do.”