ORLANDO -- On Tuesday, 18-year-old Ryan Ruffels played a practice round at Bay Hill with fellow Australian Jason Day. The two share the same agent, and Day has been something of a mentor to the teen phenom. He also chatted with Rory McIlroy and picked the brain of veteran Geoff Ogilvy, another Aussie.
Two days later, Ruffels outplayed them all, shooting a three-under 69 to sit just two strokes back of leaders Emiliano Grillo and Matthew Fitzpatrick after the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “I didn’t do anything too special,” Ruffels said. “I’m working pretty hard to make sure I don’t think about the shot before or the shot after.” Or not think about what the future could hold.
RELATED: The Maturation of Matt Fitzpatrick Playing on the first of seven sponsor’s exemptions and making his first start of the 2017 season, the former standout junior from Down Under hopes to achieve what he narrowly missed out on last year—a PGA Tour card. Last August, Ruffels, playing on sponsor's exemptions watched from afar as another Australian, Rhein Gibson, drained a 15-footer on his last hole of the final event of the regular season, the Wyndham Championship. His countryman's good fortune left Ruffels the equivalent of No. 201 on the FedEx Cup points list, one spot out of getting into the Web.com Tour Finals. Ruffels also tried to Monday qualify for another half-dozen events in 2016, coming up empty every time, losing in a playoff in three of them. In the end, he ended up with no status anywhere, retreating to the Latin American Tour (where he had four top-10 finishes in six starts) to work his way up the food chain and keep his game sharp while he made another run at getting a card this year. The takeaway? Every shot matters for a player at that point in his career. “You look back on those seven events, a three-putt here, a missed three-footer there, the margins are so small,” said Ruffels, who played at Bay Hill a year ago, just his third start as a professional, on a sponsor's exemption. “I think everybody out here has a story like that at some point.” On Thursday, Ruffels looked to make the most of another opportunity. Starting on the back nine at Bay Hill, he rattled off four birdies over his first nine holes. The next nine, however, weren’t as crisp. A couple of sloppy bogeys sandwiched around a birdie kept his day from being even better. “It’s like playing seven majors in a year,” Ruffels said of his sponsor’s exemptions, the next of which are likely to come at the Zurich Classic, the Memorial and Travelers Championship, with stops on the Latin America Tour sprinkled in between. “You have to peak for those seven tournaments, so there’s a little more importance. But that just makes me prepare well and be more meticulous.” It only helps to have someone like Day—who similarly turned pro as a teenager and struggled early—to turn to for advice. “It’s nice to have him to guide me through, play a practice round, send me a text, have someone to talk to,” Ruffels said. “It’s been a year and I feel like I’m a little better player and a little more solid.
“Last year was nearly a really good year. If I had gotten in the Web playoffs, I could have my card out here and who knows.”