Ryan Ruffels: moved into golf after time in junior tennis in the US.
As the nation's best amateur players gathered for Golf Australia's annual Interstate Series in Tasmania recently, there was one player who stood out from the others. That's because he had turned 15 the day before, the youngest-ever male to represent his state, Victoria, in senior competition.
Plainly Ryan Ruffels is no ordinary 15-year-old, and while his name and pedigree come from the highest echelons of Australian tennis, he is carving his own name as a golfer.
GA's High Performance Director, Brad James, thinks him the best Australian talent since Jason Day, which is an indication of the excitement he has created.
Ruffels has been added to the National Squad, and next month he will join three others in representing Australia at the Toyota World Junior Championships at Chukyo Golf Club near Nagoya, in Japan. In July he will play in the Callaway World Junior Championships in San Diego, in the 15-18 age group, and in between all that there are his year 10 studies at Haileybury College in Melbourne. Such is the life of a teenager who wants to be a professional golfer.
Ruffels came from tennis; both his parents, Ray and Annamaria, were professionals in that sport. Ray Ruffels was a three-time Australian Davis Cup representative, had a highest world ranking of 26 as a singles player, was a prolific doubles title-winner (including a Grand Slam title at the Australian Open with Allan Stone in 1970), and later became head coach of the Australian Institute of Sport's tennis program. AnnaMaria Fernandez-Ruffels was a US Federation Cup player who won five doubles titles on the WTA Tour, as well as leading the University of Southern California to two NCAA titles.
Ryan was born in the United States, grew up in Southern California and lived there until he was 11, when his father was appointed to coach at the AIS in Canberra and returned to his native country with his family. They moved to Melbourne a year later when Ray Ruffels took up a coaching position with Tennis Australia, from which he has since retired.
Ryan grew up hitting tennis balls and had a future in that game. He was the No. 1 ranked player under 12 player in Southern California when he was 10, but he had also played a lot of soccer and bits and pieces of golf from an early age. The Ruffels family encouraged him and his sister Gabriela to play various sports.
Ryan played plenty of golf, just not seriously. As a tot, he had been given his first cut-down golf club by none other than Mark O'Meara, the 1998 US Masters and British Open Championship winner, who happened to live on the Florida golf estate, Isleworth, where the Ruffels - both Ray and AnnaMaria -- were the in-house tennis professionals. It is the same gated community where Tiger Woods lived until recently; the site of his infamous late-night crash into a fire hydrant. "Mark gave him that club -- it had a steel shaft -- because his own son had grown too big to use it,'' says Ray Ruffels. "I remember him saying 'here, have a crack at this'.''
Ryan Ruffels pursued his tennis with golf in the background until something clicked at 10. "I entered him in a (golf) tournament,'' said AnnaMaria Fernandez-Ruffels. "It was about November, 2009. And he's never looked back. He had a good tournament, and all of a sudden he would want to practice. It was literally one day to the next.''
His own recall is that he had previously not been a fan of the game. "Not at all. I didn't like it at all. I thought it was very boring and I thought it was an old person's sport,'' he says. "I was pretty good at tennis, but I guess I didn't like it as much. I don't regret it at all. I try to do what I like doing most of the time, and in this case, it's golf.''
The tide had turned. He started practising hard, and he had willing encouragement. Both his parents are keen golfers; his mother had a low handicap of three and once qualified for the US Mid-Amateur Championship, and his father still plays off around 10. "Dad didn't necessarily want me to play tennis,'' says Ryan. "I grew up playing sports in general: soccer, tennis, golf. I never knew anything else. He just wants me to do something active and something I like doing. That's the same for both my parents.''
While his younger sister Gabriela is pursuing tennis (she is in TA's national program), Ryan has launched himself at golf. He is playing off a plus-five handicap at Victoria Golf Club, on of the nation's best golf courses, and carded a 64 on a monthly medal day there recently. Ray Ruffels also plays his golf at Victoria, but can no longer beat his son. "He likes it,'' says Ryan. "Because it means I'm getting better.''
OF COURSE Ryan Ruffels is still growing. When he first started playing golf seriously, he would not move the ball very far. Hence, he had to hone his short game to compete.
Nowadays his best drive will travel 250 metres or so without help from any wind, and the short game remains sharp. It is a formidable all-round package. He was part of the victorious Australian team at the Ten Nations Cup in South Africa in February, and at senior level was competitive enough to win several matches at the Interstate Series in Tasmania recently.
In one of those matches, he competed against a 41-year-old, Western Australia's Michael Dennis. But he does not find the age factor too daunting. "You always know they're a bit older, they've got a bit more experience. But once you step on a golf course, you're a golfer playing another golfer. I don't really see whether they're younger or older than me. They're my opponent and all I've got to do is shoot one better than them.''
He also finishes sixth at the Callaway World Junior in 2012, and second in a big junior tournament in San Diego.
Uncommon maturity is the astounding part that his coaches and mentors see.
GA's Brad James likes to call it ''golf IQ'', and Ruffels has it already. "He has very high golf IQ, because he understands his limitations and, secondly, his strengths,'' says James. "He understands how to play to those limitations and those strengths. For a kid just turning 15, that's a rarity.
"From a technical and physical standpoint, their bodies are growing at that age and they're always going to be making some development and improvements as they go along. Whether it's new golf clubs because the body's growing or a new move because the body's changing. That's something that will continue to evolve. But it's difficult to teach any athlete the emotional development, and he has those qualities.''
That is where James makes the Jason Day comparison. It is the calm, the demeanour, the smarts. What this means is that Ruffels can plot around a golf course even if he is not playing well.
Denis McDade, his coach, sees it, too. "In terms of producing something when it's needed, he's as good as I've seen,'' says McDade. "He just has an ability to get the job done. He's going to be a hell of a player, you would think. He's really smart, he's athletically-talented and he's got great touch.''
Ryan feels his sporting background has helped in that area. "I definitely think my parents have helped me with that, just coming from sporting backgrounds. Although they're tennis players, I think it relates to sport in general. It's weighing risk and reward. There might be a flag where you think the risk is too high for the amount of reward that you get. I take that into consideration. I'm not scared to have a go at a flag if I need to, but I know that sometimes you can't.''
Love of the game is another factor. "He has immersed himself in it,'' says AnnaMaria Fernandez-Ruffels. "He watches it all day on TV. We have to drag him off the course or he'd be there sunrise to sunset. It's like everything else: you can learn a lot when you are really passionate about something.''
He is seriously focussed. "His feet are planted on the ground, and so are his parents','' said McDade. "It's easy for a player of that age to get lost, but he knows where he wants to be.''
Ray Ruffels says he ensures that his son does not get ahead of himself now that he has attracted some attention. "I said to him: 'Don't believe all the articles so much. Just use them to give you confidence and to make you work harder'.''
THE WORLD is Ryan Ruffels' oyster now. In the short-term, he intends finishing his studies at Haileybury, a task made difficult by constant overseas travel. This year's trip to Japan and the US, for instance, will take him away for six weeks. Just this week he was enduring his exams.
"It's tough to manage because when you're away at a golf tournament, it's really tough to fit in any school work, just because they're long days on the course. It's four or five hours playing then preparation, warm-downs, practice afterwards. It ends up being a 10-hour day and the last thing you want to do at the end of that day is homework, but you've got to try to get it done. I try to get ahead before I go, so I don't have too much to catch up on when I get back, or if I get back on a Friday, commit myself to schoolwork for a whole weekend. Because I've got to have a back-up for golf, in case it doesn't work.''
His parents insist that he pursue an education before the golf really kicks in. "They're very much academics before golf. Their whole attitude is, if I do go to college, I've got seven years of academics and I've got 30 years to play golf. Get the academics done. Then there's a lot less pressure on your golf, because if you don't make it, you have that security.
"I definitely want to be a professional golfer in the longer run, whenever it is. I reckon if I keep working hard, it sounds cliched, head down bum up and working hard, I feel I can compete with best in the world, eventually. Not now, but eventually. I have to go down the right path, do the right things.''