Some players just have it. The stare, the carriage, the emotional placidity, along with a confident cool that would make Butch Cassidy blink. It’s not arrogance. That always can be spotted, compensation for some deep-seeded insecurity. And it’s certainly not affectation. Any attempt to fake a calm that doesn’t really exist can also be seen. Tics, the tightening of small muscles around the eyes, changes in breathing and the occasional tremor can give away any attempt to fake it until you make it.
But occasionally an athlete comes along that is the real deal, quietly charismatic and unnervingly self-assured, as if they alone can see the future and are fine with it. Tom Brady has that. So does Roger Federer, win or lose. Gretzky, Koufax, Navratilova all had it. And if you watched him live or saw his life squeezed into the documentary series The Last Dance, you know that Michael Jordan had it in spades.
It’s early, but if you paid attention last week you likely saw it again, not out of a winner, but out of a runner-up who is a potential superstar.
Those of a certain age, along with a few retro hipsters, remember the pop duo Roxette bellowing, “She’s got the look,” over a catchy guitar lick. It was hard not to hear that song in your head if you watched Gabi Ruffels at the U.S. Women’s Amateur. She is that athlete, the one you watch and know that the world turns differently for her.
Again, she didn’t win. In the longest U.S. Women’s Amateur final in 52 years and the second longest in history, Ruffels hit a 4-footer on the 38th hole that went completely around the cup and then some, 370 degrees, before staying above ground. That gave the title to 17-year-old Rose Zhang, who battled through an injured wrist and won the title by hitting one fairway after another.
But even in a loss, there’s something different about Ruffels, who at age 20 played her way into the championship match in Maryland a year after becoming the first Australian to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur. In addition to an efficient and athletic golf swing that looks remarkably like the move of countrywoman Minjee Lee, as well as a putting stroke that never changes, Ruffels has the intangibles – grit, focus, instincts, and competitive confidence that can’t be taught.
Katie Woodruff, assistant coach at the University of Southern California, saw it when she took a risk and recruited Ruffels in 2016 at the Australian Women’s Amateur. At the time, Ruffels had been playing golf two years and was barely 12 months removed from posting a score in her first tournament.
“I saw an athlete,” Woodruff said.
What there is in Ruffels is a maturity and ability to embrace a big moment, things that far exceed her age and experience.
Ruffels came by that part naturally. Her parents, Ray Ruffels and Anna-Maria Fernandez were outstanding tennis players, Ray on the ATP Tour and Anna-Maria at USC. Gabi’s older brother, Ryan, is currently making a living on the Korn Ferry Tour. But Gabi could be the best of them all. She was the top-ranked junior tennis player in Australia and won 21 International Tennis Federation events in Europe between the ages of 8 and 15, all before picking up a golf club.
“I owe (my brother) a lot for my quick rise,” Ruffels said of her meteoric ascension in a game that Zhang and most of the other amateurs who made it to the matches have been playing since they could walk.
“We’re very different people,” she said in comparing herself to her brother. “That helps because there isn’t that big a sibling rivalry.”
What there is in Ruffels is a maturity and ability to embrace a big moment, things that far exceed her age and experience. The last big match she lost before the horseshoe putt on Sunday was at the 2018 NCAA Championship where she fell to Haley Moore of Arizona. The Wildcats went on to capture that NCAA title and Ruffels didn’t handle the loss well, showing some intemperance that earned the scorn of many, including her parents. But after a family discussion and a formal apology, Ruffels has been the model competitor.
“I go to my dad and mom and even my brother for advice (about high-level competition),” she said. “They are all super supportive.”
Ruffels won the first 11 matches she played in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, second-most in history behind Dorothy Campbell, who won her first 13 matches from 1909 to 1911. Among those wins was last year’s epic final in which Ruffels was 2 down to Albane Valenzuela with four holes to play. That’s when Ruffels found another gear, birdieing 15, 17 and 18 at Old Waverly in Mississippi to capture the title.
This year she didn’t lose a hole on the back nine all week until 3 p.m. on Sunday, when she nuked a short iron over the 12th green and caught a terrible lie in the rough. The next hole she lost ended the championship.
There will certainly be other losses. But there will likely be plenty of wins.
It’s almost impossible to make accurate predictions when it comes to the future of amateur golfers. Other than Tiger Woods and Juli Inkster, who both won three consecutive amateur championships, there aren’t any sure things. Remember can’t-miss Curtis Luck? Where is he these days?
But barring injury or unforeseen influences, you can expect great things out of Gabi Ruffels. And the game will be better for it.