BRADENTON, Florida – Gabriela Ruffels still has a player profile up on tennis.com.au. The daughter of two tennis pros, Ruffels was a top-three player in her age group, a national champion for 12 and under and a member of the national squad. Her heroes, according to the profile, were Kim Clijsters and Roger Federer.
To the shock of everyone, a burned-out Ruffels gave up tennis entirely at age 14.
“The national academy gave me a couple weeks to think about it,” said Ruffels, one of 15 LPGA rookies to begin their season at this week’s Drive On Championship in Bradenton, Florida.
“Everyone thought I would come back.”
That first day away from tennis, a bored Ruffels headed to the driving range to hit golf balls. Older brother Ryan had already left tennis for golf. The next day, Ruffels returned to the range and thought she’d play a few holes. If you’re going to do that, mother AnnaMaria told her, take a few lessons to enjoy it more. She’d taken 15-minute lessons growing up (splitting a session with Ryan), but never wanted to play.
Soon, AnnaMaria had her signed up for a nine-hole tournament.
“We got to the first tee and everybody was talking to each other,” AnnaMaria recalled. “She said, ‘Mom, this must be a really rinky dink tournament because everyone is socializing and talking on the tee.’ I said ‘No, that’s golf, Gabi.’ ”
She loved it.
Golf, it turns out, wasn’t as cutthroat as the tennis ranks. Ruffels, who homeschooled at the academy and mostly practiced with the same girl every day, was happy to escape the tennis bubble and enjoy a calmer sport. In golf, she found some peace.
In December of 2014, Ruffels played her first 18 holes with her dad’s clubs. By April, she was down to a five handicap. She landed a scholarship to USC, her mother’s alma mater, won the 2019 U.S. Women’s Amateur and notched a pair of top-15 finishes in LPGA majors before turning pro in 2021.
Gabi Ruffels played her first 18-hole round in December of 2014 with her dad’s clubs. A family friend took some video that day. The former tennis star begins her @LPGA rookie season this week.
Watch and be amazed! (🎥courtesy Ruffels family) pic.twitter.com/2ces3tfagl
— Beth Ann Nichols (@GolfweekNichols) January 23, 2024
AnnaMaria (nee Fernandez), the National Collegiate Player of the Year in 1981, rose as high as 19th in the world during her professional tennis career. Husband, Ray, a three-time semifinalist at the Australian Open, partnered with Billie Jean King in mixed doubles in 1978, reaching the final at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
They offer advice, but also appreciate their daughter’s natural instincts. A lot of people, AnnaMaria says, wouldn’t be brave enough to walk away from a sport after so much early success, noting that Andre Agassi wrote a book about it.
“We go back and discuss some of the tournaments we went to early on,” said AnnaMaria. “She’ll say ‘I remember as we were driving in, I just hated having to be there.’ ”
Mom and dad had no idea.
Coming to the game so late means golf still feels fresh to 23-year-old Ruffels, who loves to play more than practice. All signs pointed to her being on the LPGA earlier than this, but on her way to play a practice round for 2022 LPGA Q-School, it dawned on Ruffels that she never signed up. A paperwork error sent her back to the Epson Tour for the 2023 season, where she won three times and topped the money list. Ruffels handled the mistake with great grace and called it a big year of learning.
“I’m super proud I was able to have that year on the Epson Tour, to prove to myself that I can do it,” she said. “To be able to win on the LPGA, you kind of have to be able to climb the ladder a little bit.”
AnnaMaria believes her daughter needed that extra year because she started so much later than everybody else.
“So many little things you learn as juniors, even in tennis, your development as a junior really sets you up,” said AnnaMaria. “Well, she didn’t really have that.”
When Ruffels first turned professional, she says she tried to embody what she felt it meant to be a professional, and in doing so, listened to a lot of different people.
This past year, however, she focused on keeping things simple, returning to Craig Chapman, the swing coach she worked with in college. Chapman reminded Ruffels that she’s a feel player. They spent a lot of time focusing on shots from 100 yards and in to prepare for the next level.
Ruffels relies heavily on her brother Ryan, often sending him questions about how to play certain shots or advice on course management. While mom caddied for her on the Epson Tour, she’ll have veteran LPGA caddie John Killeen on the bag to start the season in Florida.
Grace Kim, a fellow Aussie who won last year as an LPGA rookie, reconnected with Ruffels on the Epson Tour and practiced with her at Isleworth Golf and Country Club in Windermere, Florida, during the off weeks. While Ruffels plays under the Australian flag, she was born in Orlando, Florida, and spends much of her time now with her parents in the California desert.
“I don’t think she has weakness,” said Kim. “She hits the ball straight and long and putts well. When she’s on fire, no one is stopping her.”