GIVEN that this weekend’s St Andrews Links Trophy represents his first experience of both the Old Course and links golf in its most traditional form, Ryan Ruffels probably won’t finish first in what has become Scotland’s premier amateur event.
No matter. In the longer term, all the signs are that this 17-year old from Melbourne might just be the next big thing in Australian golf. Only four months ago, for example, he finished T-3 in the Victorian Open, two shots behind European Tour regular Richard Green.
“He seems to be the real deal,” says former U.S Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who played alongside Ruffels in last year’s Australian Masters. “There are tons of kids around who strike the ball amazingly and present really well on the range. They hit shots just like the pros really.
“Every now and then though, a player comes along who has that X-factor, or something you don’t quite understand. Jordan Spieth has it. Rory McIlroy has it. And Ryan does too.”
His nation’s junior champion in each of the past two years, Ruffels comes from an elite sporting family. His father, Ray, won the Australian Open doubles in 1977, was a regular member of the Aussie’s Davis Cup team and went on to coach the highly successful doubles team of Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge. Mother AnnaMaria played multiple times for the United States in the Federation Cup.
Indeed, the younger Ruffels could have followed his parents into their chosen sport. At the age of ten, Ryan – who was born in Florida – was the top-ranked under-12 tennis player in southern California. Only when his father was offered a job with the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra did Ryan turn to golf, although the first club he owned was a present from former Open and Masters champion Mark O’Meara, back when the Ruffels family lived on the Isleworth estate in Orlando.
“I enjoy golf more,” he says. “You don’t have to run for one thing.”
This past week Ruffels has certainly been having a lot of fun. As you’d expect from a young man who has spent a fair bit of time around golfing purists like Ogilvy, pictured below right, and former European Tour pro Mike Clayton, he instinctively took to the challenges presented by golf’s most famous venue.
“The Old Course is everything I expected and more,” he says. “And it is so cool to see it with the stands up for the Open. I was told how I would have to run shots on to the greens. I fancy myself a bit of a highball hitter who can stop shots pretty quickly. But here that shot has no chance, especially downwind. So I’ve been working on hitting 7-irons from maybe 100 yards, landing the ball at 70 and letting it run the rest.
“This form of golf is the best way to learn how to play because it requires the most skill. It’s multi-dimensional, not just hitting the same shot over and over. I’ve seen plenty of guys in the US with one stock shot – which is all they can play. But that is all they need and they are adapting to their environment. Here, though, you need all the shots and some you’ve never seen before.
“For example, in a practice round I putted from 65-yards out on the 10th hole on the Old Course. The pin was on the front, just over a huge bump. And my ball was on a downhill lie. In other words, I had no chance. So I putted to about 15 feet, which was a lot closer than if I had chipped it. I love that sort of thing.”
A fluent Spanish speaker (his maternal grandparents hail from Peru and Ecuador), Ruffels first came to national prominence at the age of 15 during the 2013 Australian Open. Seven over par after only six holes of his opening round at Royal Sydney, he battled round in 77, shot 67 the next day to make the cut and eventually finished T-24 on four under par. It was a remarkable example of both his talent and competitive spirit.
“My dad has been a great help to me,” he says. “He knows enough about sport to know that he knows nothing about golf. So he stays out of the way as much as possible. But at the same time, the psychology of high-level competition is similar in all sports so he knows that side of things. He has helped me a lot in handling expectations now that I am starting to get better. I’ve improved gradually and attracted more attention along the way. It’s nice. And humbling. My dad has always told me to view it as a compliment. It shows I at least have potential and a chance to make it in golf. I know that I have to work hard though.”
He’s doing that at the moment. As well as being part of the 13-strong Aussie contingent in St Andrews that will next week take on Scotland and South Africa at Castle Stuart, Ruffels still has to do his “Year-12” high school homework.
But it is golf that will surely play the biggest part in his future. Later this month, Ruffels will play in the Amateur Championship at Carnoustie, before attempting to qualify for the Open in the same week he competes at the French Open. An invitation to next month’s Scottish Open is not completely out of the question either.
The plan at the moment is to turn professional towards the end of 2016 after one last summer as an amateur, albeit playing mostly in professional events. Just where he will play thereafter remains unknown.
“The US seems logical because my family has a base there,” he shrugs. “But this week has opened my eyes as to how much fun I could have in Europe. I like this sort of golf. Plus, the culture here is similar to Australia. So I have a decision to make. But both options are attractive.”
As is this likeably modest young man, albeit one with ambitions to go to the very top in golf. He’s certainly headed that way. Last year, when he played alongside Ogilvy and Adam Scott in the opening two rounds of that Australian Masters at Metropolitan in Melbourne, he looked far from out of place.
“Playing with Adam and Geoff was harder than it looked,” he says with a smile. “I felt like a fan out there. I spent the first few holes watching Adam. I had to think of him as an opponent, not someone I was going to chase for an autograph. I was a bit star-struck, more by Adam than Geoff, who I know well.
“Once I settled down I hopefully showed them I could hit some shots under pressure. I proved something to myself too. That is probably the most pressure I’ve ever played under.
“My expectations are getting higher though. A year ago I was pretty stoked if I made the cut in a pro event.”