12 Aug 2019 | Amateur golf |
Gutsy Gabi alone on US summit
by Mark Hayes
You often hear a player, having just won a career-defining title, say the moment is yet to sink in.
What you don't often hear is that they've just received a message that sent a chill - a good one - up their spine.
Gabi Ruffels had both moments today.
Having taken up competitive golf just four years ago, the Victorian scaled a summit never previously reached by an Aussie in becoming the 2019 US Women's Amateur champion.
With a finish generally reserved for the sport's elite, Ruffels birdied four of the final five holes of an epic 36-hole finale against Switzerland's Albane Valenzuela to win 1-up with a closing putt for the ages.
Throw in that her University of Southern California coach and caddie Justin Silverstein had to leave to attend a funeral with four holes to play, and the script nears fairytale proportions.
But to cap it all off, the spine-tingler.
No less a legend than seven-time major champion Karrie Webb, herself highly ranked among the game's great ball strikers, sent a tweet that said it all.
"Unbelievable finish ... birdies on four of the last five to win it! When grow up, I want to hit my irons like Gabi!" Webb tweeted.
Ruffels was stunned.
"I've known Karrie for 2-3 years now, I met her at the Australian Open, and I'm absolutely thrilled that she's taken an interest in me and my golf," the Melburnian said.
"But yeah, that gave me a shiver. It's hard to comprehend that.
"She has sent me a few private messages, too. I'm so honoured, I can't believe it."
The delightful daughter of two tennis champions, Ruffels only took up golf competitively in 2015.
She has gone to the United States to complete her studies, but was acutely aware of a tidal wave of support from home, including many at her home base, the Victoria Golf Club.
"I'm a proud Australian. That’s where I started playing golf," she said.
"I have such a huge support system back there and to win it not only for myself but everyone back home is huge, and it just means the world."
And the world is now coming to Ruffels ... and quickly.
With victory at the Old Waverly Golf Club in Mississippi today, the 19-year-old won a gold medal from the USGA and custody of its Robert Cox Trophy for one year along with her name on a plaque in the Hall of Champions at the USGA Golf Museum.
She earnt an exemption into the 2020 US Women’s Open as either professional or amateur; strictly as an amateur, she also will receive invitations to April’s Augusta National Women’s Amateur followed by the right to play the 2020 ANA Inspiration, Women’s British Open and Evian championships, as well as a 10-year exemption into the US Women's Amateur field.
Ruffels, who's a rising junior at her college base, is on record as saying her education is paramount, so there's very little chance those exemptions will become invalid next year.
And it all came after a finish for the ages.
With weariness creeping in, a one-hole deficit and her trusted caddie about to depart, Ruffels said she got a shot of adrenaline with a birdie to halve the 32nd hole.
Mississippi State University student Blair Stockett took over the bag on the 33rd hole and Ruffels immediately drew level with a two-putt birdie on the par five.
The 34th hole was halved in bogeys, leading to arguably the critical moment of the week - a tee shot to a back-left pin on the 153m par-three 35th hole with water left of the green.
"I hit a good one there when we played it the first time and I knew I had the right club, so I knocked one in there with a 6-iron and it was nearly perfect," Ruffels said.
"That was a pretty big moment because Albane was playing really well.
"I knew I could either pull it off or it could be a disaster, but I'm kind of not really looking back on that now because I’m not going to play that shot ever again.
"But yeah, super glad it worked out."
The resultant 2m birdie putt gave Ruffels a 1-up lead which looked even better when she hit a commercial approach to the middle of the 36th green, only 4m above the cup.
But not to be outdone, Valenzuela played her own spectacular shot almost to gimme range to heap the pressure on the young Aussie.
With Stockett - who trains and plays regularly at Old Waverly - in her ear, Ruffels said she wanted to leave herself a gimme putt to at least put the heat back on her Stanford-based opponent.
"I said to Blair, `This is moving a lot to the left'. And she’s like: `Yep, it is. And it’s really fast downhill, too.'.
"Yeah, just kind of trying to match line and speed and just seeing that ball kind of roll into the hole is special.
"She made it so clear. She made me so comfortable. And to be honest, I didn’t think that last putt on 18 was going in, but seeing that just drop in, it's probably the best feeling of my life.
"This is what you dream of as a kid when you start playing golf. This is the biggest championship in amateur golf."
But don't expect Ruffels to either relax, or lose her focus on what's next on her agenda.
"Winning a championship like this gives you recognition and opportunity and I'm looking forward to that," she said.
"But (I'm) still going to keep my head down and work hard - I’ve still got a lot of things ahead."
You get the strong feeling that whatever that target is, it will be well within Ruffels' reach.
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