Gabriela Ruffels lost her lead early and her caddie late, but this daughter of accomplished tennis professionals never lost her poise, and won the U.S. Women’s Amateur on Sunday.
Ruffels, a junior at the University of Southern California, birdied three of her final four holes to defeat Stanford senior Albane Valenzuela, 1 up, at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss.
“I’m still kind of speechless right now,” said Ruffels, who with the victory became the first Australian to win the U.S. Women's Amateur title in the championship's 124-year history. “This is my dream, this is my goal. I’ve worked so hard to get here. Credit to Albane. She’s such a great player and a great person. It was a great match and could have gone either way.”
It took a turn, and an odd one at that, between the 14th green and 15th tee, with Valenzuela leading, 1 up. Ruffels’ caddie, Justin Silverstein, her USC coach, had to leave. He had a death in the family earlier in the week, the funeral is on Monday in Santa Barbara, Calif., and his only option to get there was a late afternoon flight from Memphis International Airport.
He had informed Ruffels Sunday morning he likely would have to leave early. Silverstein hugged her goodbye, took off his caddie bib and gave it to Blair Stockett, a Mississippi State junior, who was standing by.
“I was prepared for it,” Ruffels said. “He told me at the start of the round. He had to leave, and it was fine. I’m so grateful for Blair over there. What a great person and she really came in clutch at the end.”
So did Ruffels. At the par-5 15th hole, the 33rd of the match, she reached the green in two and tied the match with a two-putt birdie.
The match was still tied when they came to the 35th hole, a 168-yard par 3. Ruffels hit her tee shot to 12 feet below the hole and after Valenzuela completed a two-putt par, holed the birdie putt to go 1 up.
On the par-4 final hole, Ruffels hit her approach to 18 feet above the hole and Valenzuela countered with a clutch shot of her own, to five feet above the hole. She never got to putt. Ruffels holed her birdie dead center on the right-to-left breaking putt to end the match.
The loss stung for Valenzuela, who two years earlier lost to Sophia Schubert in the U.S. Women’s Amateur final at San Diego Country Club.
“Thirty-six holes is a grind,” Valenzuela said. “I just tried to stay patient. Gabi ended up strong at the end with birdie-birdie, and I tried my best and fought really hard. It’s hard to be that close again, but I fought hard again, so I have nothing to regret.”
As for Ruffels, she was a competitive tennis player until she decided to take up golf at 15. Her father Ray reached the semifinals of the Australian Open three times and her mother, Anna-Maria Fernandez, won a singles national championship at USC.
Gabriela clearly has the athletic gene and it was evident on a hot and humid afternoon. She lost a 3 up lead in the morning 18, and after the 14th hole of the match did not hold the lead again until the 35th hole.
“I wanted it so bad,” she said.