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13th Beach Golf Links, VIC

1-4 February, 2024

10 Feb 2023 | Vic Open |

Clayton: Hope springs eternal for gifted Ruffels

by Mike Clayton

Ryan Ruffels, Elvis Smylie image
Ryan Ruffels and Elvis Smylie (left) can hardly believe what is happening at 13th Beach on Thursday.

Ryan Ruffels coming back to play in Australia was always going to be a story of the can’t miss kid who was good enough to finish third in the Vic Open and 23rd in the Australian Open before his 17th birthday.

He played beautifully, impressed everyone and in a world always looking for the next star he signed with an American manager and set off to play the US Tour. It was, in retrospect, a wildly ambitious undertaking at an age when contemporaries including Colin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland were heading to university to play golf.

Most who saw him play as a teenager in Australia assumed success was inevitable, but the PGA Tour is no place for a teenager no matter how talented, and Ruffels has bounced around between sponsors invitations on the main tour, the tour in Latin America and what’s now the Korn Ferry Tour.

“My physical game was ready, but my maturity wasn’t,” he said this week.

“I held myself to such a high standard that it hurt me sometimes. I had some good results, but I didn’t give myself enough credit for it. I pretty much lost my game for most of 2018 and 2019. I didn’t know where it was going.

“I went to see (coach) Justin Pointer in Dallas because my old coach, Denis McDade, was in Australia and just too far away.

“We got the physical game on track, but I still wasn’t having results and I had to get my mind right because I’d taking a bit of a beating.”

Not quite a decade after his third place at 13th Beach he was back, drawn at just after 8am on the 10th tee (Creek Course) with Nathan Barbieri and my boss for the week, Elvis Smylie.

It’s easy to assume how someone is hitting the ball based on their results and the rumours but here was a chance at least to get a glimpse of what was really going on.

The par-5 10th is a relatively easy driving hole and Ryan hit a wild pull so far left it was out on the 14th fairway but with nothing too onerous in front of him he made an easy five.

All three birdied the par-3 12th and after the Barbieri and Smylie laid back with irons on the 14th, Ruffels drove it onto the green 290 metres away and made another birdie.

He “clanked” a six iron to the par-3 15th but it did better than it might have, and the 10-footer went down for a two. A perfect drive left him 100 metres away at the next and from there he spun a perfect wedge back into the hole. Eagle.

The water down the right of the 17th is 255 metres to carry and into the wind his high “spinny” fade (the modern vernacular for the old heal-cut) looked like it might be wet, but some pleading saw it carry and his flushed iron from a couple of hundred metres looked perfect but it rolled over the green and down the steep bank behind.

It’s no good down here but he whacked a putter up the slope and the only thing stopping it flying 15 feet past was the flag – which his ball duly hit and fell in for another eagle.

Seven under after eight holes.

Not bad.

He made a nice 10-footer for a par at the 18th after a poor tee shot and all three reduced the downwind par-5, 2nd to drives, seven irons and easy birdies.

Four easy pars followed as a lead-in to a crazy finish.

The seventh is a fiddly driving hole and both Elvis and Ruffels drove left. Elvis was fine, short of the deep rough, but Ryan could only hack his out and from there his pitch just ran over the back, leaving him with almost the exact same shot he’d holed at the 17th.

Same result. Whack, clunk, in. Birdie.

The eighth is an easy drive really – the fairway must be at least 60 metres wide - but the water down the right is always a nagging worry. Nagging enough at least for Barbieri to shank an iron into the middle of the hazard and for Ruffels to play way back and left with a cautious iron eager to avoid the fate of Barbieri’s Titleist.

From somewhere around 150 metres Ruffels played a nice eight-iron over the fronting bunker, one placed to make the tee shot fired away safely left more difficult, to twelve feet and holed it to get to 10-under.

The ninth is a terrific little, short par-4 and avoiding the sand liberally scattered all over the driving area is the priority. Ruffels did it by flying far left, Barbieri by hitting a perfect drive 10 feet from the hole and Elvis almost did the same and left himself a simple up-and-in from just short of the green.

Ryan bumbled some sort of average pitch down just short of the green and then from 35 feet he staggeringly holed from off the green for the fourth time in twelve holes and a 61.

Barbieri – after holing a bunker shot at the eighth for a par –then bumped his eagle putt in to match Smylie’s 65.

Between the three they were 25-under par for the day, a total one assumes is some sort of record in Australia and likely beyond.

The conditions were perfect and a 6400-metre, mid-summer course in this era is bound to be made up of a lot of wedge shots, but what fun it was to see the golf.

There is a long way to go, and one hot round is just that but for those who have written off Ruffels off, it’d be worth remembering at 24 he’s the same age as Graham Marsh when he gave up school teaching, put his name on his bag, bought a plane ticket and took on the world.

Ruffels plan this year is to head to Europe, something many thought he should have done at the start of his career. It’s impossible to know but the scant yet startling evidence of the opening round suggests there is more than a little hope.

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