Victorian prodigy Ryan Ruffels has turned pro to take on the US PGA Tour.
Until today Australia’s top amateur, the Melbourne prodigy has already secured two invitations to play on world golf’s biggest stage and will head to the United States next week to prepare for his professional debut.
Ruffels, at 17 the youngest Aussie to have played professionally on the main US Tour, will play the Farmers Insurance Open from January 28 at San Diego’s famous Torrey Pines course where he won the world junior title in 2014, following in the footsteps of Tiger Woods and Jason Day.
He will play his second event a fortnight later at the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, also in California.
Ruffels is confident he and management group Wasserman will secure five more Tour starts to reach his permitted maximum of seven invitations this season.
To secure a Tour card for next season, Ruffels must, within those seven starts, match the 125th-ranked finisher on FedEx Cup points from last season – a mark held by Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa.
Ruffels also announced a sponsorship deal with sportswear and apparel giant Nike, his club of choice throughout the majority of his glittering amateur career.
The announcement’s timing, effectively prompted by his departure date next week to prepare for his pro debut at Torrey Pines, coincides with the Australian Amateur Championship, one of the few amateur tournaments on which he hasn’t left his mark.
And while he admitted he’d love to have seen his name on the national senior trophy as he’s done twice on the junior trophy – matching Adam Scott – Ruffels said he just couldn’t wait any longer.
“It’s been an anxious wait to tell everyone. For probably 2-3 months I’ve been set on this particular time and it’s pretty exciting the time is finally here,” Ruffels beamed.
“It would have been great to put my name on the Aussie Amateur trophy, and there are a lot of things I could have and maybe should have done as an amateur.
“It would have been nice to win another junior and make history with a third title, or win the senior trophy, but the real history is made as a pro – winning majors and PGA Tour events.
“As much as the amateur stuff is great, and I’ll always cherish those tournament wins, the real stuff is going to be on the pro tour and I’m glad I’m going to get into that now.”
Ruffels, for most of the past year ranked in the world’s top 10 amateurs despite completing his Year 12 studies at Melbourne’s Haileybury College, said the decision was made not long after bad weather robbed him of a chance to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in October.
While he tied for second in Hong Kong, only a win that would have won him direct entry to The Masters in April would have kept him in amateur ranks.
“It was one of my big goals to play in a major championship as an amateur, but that was really it,” said Ruffels, who dismissed suggestions he was turning pro too early.
“For a while now, as much as I’m 17, I feel like I’ve been playing the amateur and junior stuff for a long time.
“I played my first amateur at 12 and the men’s interstate series not long after that, so as much as people are going to say, `He’s only 17, why is he turning pro?’, I feel like the time is right.
“I’ve done what I needed to do as an amateur.”
Born in the United States, Ruffels, the son of tennis legends Ray and Anna-Maria (Fernandez), joked that for a long time he thought his “US passport was only to get me into the quicker line at customs over there”, said his dual citizenship status was important in the next chapter in his career.
“I’ve realised now it’s got a lot more use than that. My family has a residence in southern California which is nice as a base and I’ll look to base myself in Florida a little later on this year around family friends.’
He said the American lifestyle – and golf courses – would be an easy transition.
“I like that sort of golf, I play well over there and I’ve spent a little part of my life growing up over there, so it was a pretty clear decision (rather than play on other international tours),” said Ruffels, who thrilled many when he fired a first-round 66 in the Canadian Open in his first US Tour event last July.
“I was very nervous playing my first PGA Tour event and everyone you’re around is kind of your idol, then all of a sudden you’re there against them.
“But I felt like I handled that pretty well in the first round and while it didn’t finish off the way I wanted it to, at least it gave me a good gauge of my game and seeing my name on that leaderboard there, as opposed to an Aussie Amateur, I knew that next time I’m in that position I’ll be better off for that experience.
“And I don’t think it was just a one-off experience.
“It’s been almost frustrating not being pro the past 3-4 months. I haven’t played an amateur event since the Asia Pacific Amateur, so it’s sort of like I was training like a pro, around pros all the time and I just wanted to be one of them.
“It’s been an anxious wait and I feel like I’m ready, know what those guys are about and how they go about it. I’ve played events on the US Tour, the European Tour and Aussie Tour now, so I’ve got a good gauge now as opposed to jumping into something -- I’m prepared and know what to expect.
“Obviously I’m going to be nervous playing in my first event as a pro, but that’s the way it is and I’ll be on a course I know really well, I’ve played really well at and I’ve actually won around. That’s why I thought Torrey would be a good place to start.
Ruffels said his transition to the ranks of playing for money would be made far easier by keeping the same team that has nurtured him for years, including coach Denis McDade, whose stable of stars includes tour players Marc Leishman and Marcus Fraser.
Having signed with Wasserman, the firm that also manages Day, Ruffels said it has given him a network of mates on whom to call, including fellow Victoria Golf Club member Geoff Ogilvy.
“It’s huge. I met Jason for the first time in Canada and I got to know him a little bit there. We’ve exchanged text messages over the Christmas period and I’m going to play a practice round with him on Tuesday at Farmers Insurance,” he said.
“He’s already given me some great hints and pointers of things to watch out for like, for example, having to book a tee time for practice at Pebble Beach because the last tee time is at 12 o’clock. Just little things and he’s been helping out which is great from a major champion and a former world No.1 who I’m sure will get back there again soon.
“I know `Leish’ a little bit through Denis, played a practice round with him at the Aussie Open and he’s a great guy, too.
“Geoff, along with all the great members and staff at Victoria Golf Club who’ve helped me so much are also in my corner and I’m indebted to them for their support over the years.
“And Geoff is going to work something up at the first two tournaments I get to play, and it’s good to have his support and know all these guys already.”
Ruffels paid a huge tribute to those who’ve readied him for the next phase of his golfing travels, particularly Golf Australia’s high performance network and the team at the Victorian Institute of Sport.
“They’ve been a huge part of where I’m at and it’s really accelerated that process. I feel the way I play golf that I would have got to the point where I’m at now, but it would have definitely been delayed and via a different route like the college system,” he said.
“So being part of Golf Australia and the VIS since I was 13 or 14 has really accelerated that because I’ve not only been able to play Australian Opens and Australian Masters and get that professional experience pretty early, but mainly to have had a team around me that most people in America don’t really get until they get to college.
“I’ve had that since I was 14 or so and that team’s not going to change as I turn pro.
“I’ll keep all those links, for sure. My team is not going to change whatsoever. It’s been working and to this point I’ve been lucky and had minimal hiccups along the way. It’s been a gradual progression, which is nice, and I’m still going to have the same golf mates for the most part because they’ll mostly turn pro later on and we’ll all be chasing each other’s tails, it’s just that I’ve turned a little bit earlier.
“I’d like to thank Golf Australia and everyone involved there and all the experiences they’ve made possible. The VIS has been a huge part in putting a team around me, my parents who’ve not only driven me everywhere, but just their knowledge and expertise from other sports and their experiences has been invaluable and something I cherish and will keep using because I’ve been able to skip a few learning curves because they’ve been able to tell me and I don’t have to make the same mistake and that’s awesome.
“Nike has supported me for so long through my amateur stuff that it’s going to make the transition to turning pro much easier. I was the only one they backed in Australia at the time and it’s great they put the trust in me to do that.
Golf Australia high performance director Brad James was thrilled with Ruffels’ plans.
“We’re not losing our best amateur, what we are striving for is to produce major champions and amateur golf is just a pathway to that goal,” James said.
“We’re not losing an amateur athlete, it’s just another person playing in professional ranks for Australia and representing us all at the highest level. We should be – and all are – very proud of Ryan.
“It’s fantastic opportunity for Ryan to take the next step in his career. He’s had some fantastic learning opportunities along the way, he’s got a great team around him in Denis, the VIS and all the people who are a part of that team.
“He’s got all the tools in place to be a great player and now he just has to keep learning and working hard as he has in the past couple of years – and I’m confident he’ll do that.”
James said Ruffels’ progression was a great model for aspiring young golfers.
“When you have athletes out there who have utilised the resources, come through the system and, more importantly, had success in the system, it only helps the younger kids coming through that they know it’s a good pathway for them to tread.
“It’s not the only pathway to go down, there are different opportunities – with college, going alone, or funding through other sources – but Ryan has used our way and his team around him.
“It’s difficult to do it yourself, you need people on the same page and I think that’s what Ryan has done a very good job of.”