Ryan's one Ruff nut to crack

Ryan Ruffels
Ryan Ruffels plies his trade in South America. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

Ryan Ruffels relaxes during a rare down moment in his Buenos Aires hotel.

It sounds exotic and, for many high-flying 18-year-olds, Argentina’s vibrant capital is a destination of choice.

But not for Ruffels.

He’s here on a mission, not of his choosing, but one he knows he must give his all.

And while he’s doing his best to focus on the task immediately at hand, the young Australian can be excused if his mind wanders forward.

The Florida-based Melburnian is in town to play this week’s Molino Canuelas Championship on the Latino America Tour, two rungs below his preferred destination, the US PGA Tour. Courtesy of the vagaries of a tumultuous year as a rookie professional in 2016, though, it’s Ruffels’ reality.

But win or lose come his Sunday night, the sweet-swinging right hander has an opportunity next week to skip a few rungs.

For the second year in a row, Ruffels has the chance to swing with the big boys at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Bay Hill, Florida.

It’s one of what he hopes will be seven invitational starts he can make on this season’s US PGA Tour schedule, just as he did last year when his high-profile quest to earn his playing rights on the world’s biggest stage fell agonisingly short.

Ruffels’ rankings aren’t easily found via an internet search because his all-important FedEx Cup points aren’t published because he’s a not a Tour member.

But they are burnt in his young mind.

Needing to match 200th or better in the season-long points race to reach the secondary Web.Com Tour playoffs, Ruffels watched the pile he stashed in four made cuts, including his best T20 at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, dwindle inexorably after his final start in May.

Almost as if he were mired in a clichéd horror movie, he was counting the numbers through the final round of August’s Wyndham Championship when countryman Rhein Gibson became the last man between Ruffels and the next logical step in his dream.

Gibson, already qualified via other means, made for him an inconsequential 5m putt on the 72nd green that effectively eliminated Ruffels by a solitary point.

When one considers that roughly a T70 finish on any given week on tour will earn that point, it’s a heavy price to pay.

When you’ve four-putted the final green at Pebble Beach a few weeks earlier, had a mitt full of three-putts despite your high finish in New Orleans or even missed short birdie try in a Monday qualifier playoff later in the season, that lone point can have far greater implications.

And so it was for Ruffels as he recalls from a far happier place in South America.

“That was a tough spot … it definitely wasn’t easy,” the thoughtful Ruffels muses.

“Emotionally it’s not easy to take; I’m just out of high school and you feel like everything should be going your way and sometimes it just doesn’t.

“But when I get out there next year or the year after, I’m sure it will hold me in good stead to have gone through that experience and to have learnt the importance of every single shot.”

Even in that wording, you sense Ruffels’ growing maturity.

While many in Australian golf assumed this prodigy would make light work of those years his senior when he turned pro in late 2015, Ruffels himself had no such over-estimations.

“Clearly that one point, had I got it, would have been a pretty big contrast,” he says.

“I’ve always done things a bit younger and turning pro at 17 was tough. But people don’t realise how close I came last year – I was effectively one good tournament (in the Web.Com playoffs) away from a PGA Tour card.

“Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it was pretty close to being an outstanding season for a 17-year-old – a professional that young.

“People run into me and think I’m 21 and 22 because my name has been around for a couple of years. But I’m not 19 yet and even if it takes me another couple of seasons to get where I want to go, I’d still be there before I’m 21 and that would be a great accomplishment.”

But back to Argentina.

Ruffels is the first to admit his near miss from the Web.Com Tour playoffs stung.

But he’s never been one to let the grass grow under his feet, so the next available option – even at the expense of negating his homesickness by returning for the key PGA Tour of Australasia events – was in South America.

Four top-seven finishes vaulted him to 22nd on the Latino America money list in just six starts – again not far from sneaking into the Web.Com Tour reckoning, yet far enough to endure another reassessment.

“That’s why I’m here, really. I didn’t really give myself enough chances to be top five (on the Latino America money list) and this year it’s an option I want to have open,” says Ruffels, who also confesses that his South American feats are “off Broadway” for many Aussie golf fans who want to follow his progress.

“That hurt me that I didn’t make the top 200, but I regrouped and was actually proud of myself down here. Four good finishes and I still wasn’t far away.

“But that’s the thing, In 2016 inexperience (was a factor and) I didn’t know what to expect and didn’t have that one huge finish – I had a few decent ones without that big finish. I got away from a few things that I’d been doing to get me here and I can’t afford to do that.

“I learnt from that, put it behind me and I’m down in South America to get it all going again – I’ve put that behind me and I’m started on 2017.”

That “start” has included a week-long stint with coach Denis McDade in California when the Melbourne-based mentor was in the United States to see both Ruffels and fellow Victorian stablemate Marc Leishman.

And you can hear the renewed confidence oozing out.

“My game is a lot better this year,” Ruffels says.

“When I came back from a break at home (in Australia in January) and was back in Orlando for three weeks, I was working on some stuff technically that I didn’t think I’d be able to get to for a while and then taking it on course.

“I’m excited about the work I’ve done in the gym and then to see Denis last week was really good timing for me to bring it all together.”

Ruffels, who matched 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott and Antonio Murdaca as the only modern players to have twice won the Australian junior championship, knows he must focus on Buenos Aires this week, but he’s booked on the “red-eye” to Florida on Sunday night to take up his Bay Hill start.

And in what promises to be an emotional week with the tournament running for the first time since the death of the legendary Arnold Palmer, Ruffels says he can’t wait to feel part of that big dance again.

Ryan Ruffels
Ryan Ruffels meets the legendary Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill in 2016. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

“Last year I was very lucky to play with Mr Palmer’s grandson, Sam Saunders, for two rounds and he came out to watch us play the back nine on Thursday and Friday – it was pretty amazing,” Ruffels says with genuine emotion.

“Obviously with what happened last year, it’s going to be centrepiece of the week to honour his legacy and what he meant to golf. So just to be a part of that is pretty amazing and I’m very lucky.

“I got a really good photo with him the first day on the 10th hole – it’s one I’ll keep close to me forever, I reckon.”

Bay Hill is a far cry from Buenos Aires, but Ruffels says he’s better positioned this year than last to take advantage should he work into contention in either event.

“It’s obviously different being in South America, but it’s part of the process. At the end of the day I’m still 18, but now I feel like I have the maturity that even with half a sniff, I’ll know what to do.

“I’ve always been a big believer that it’s not about where you start, but where you end up.

“Hopefully I’ll be there sooner rather than later, but I’m heading in the right direction.”

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