Gabriela Ruffels will always remember Nov. 6, 2022.
The former U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and USC standout was on the road, driving from Orlando to Mobile, Ala., for an advanced scouting trip to the site of the first week of the LPGA Q-Series. This was the first step to Ruffels getting her LPGA Tour card after coming just $5,390 short of earning it on the Epson Tour in 2022.
It was a seven-hour drive to Magnolia Grove Golf Course, and she was nearly there when she slowed her car down to stop at a red light. Then it hit her.
Am I even signed up?
“I was like, wait. Q-series is coming up in three weeks. I haven’t really registered,” Ruffels, age 23, told GOLF.com in an interview last month. “I haven’t really gone into the app. Is there anything that I need to do for that? What’s the process? I haven’t really done it and I hope that I’m OK.”
Ruffels pulled into a parking lot of the first gas station she saw and took out her phone. She checked the LPGA registration portal and it was confirmed: she was not entered. Worse, the deadline had passed. Her final opportunity to earn LPGA Tour status for 2023 was shot.
Yet in the days, weeks and months that followed, Ruffels learned more about herself than she might ever have on the LPGA Tour.
And there’s little doubt that’s where she’s headed in 2024.
But first, it wouldn’t be doing Ruffels’ story justice to skip over how we got here. If you had asked her 10 years ago what she’d be doing the first week of July 2023, she probably would have hoped to be at Wimbledon — not prepping for the U.S. Women’s Open of golf at Pebble Beach, where she’ll make her fourth career start in the national championship when she tees off on the 10th hole at 10 a.m. ET on Thursday.
Gabi’s father, Ray, is a former Australian professional tennis player and coach. He was ranked as high as No. 27 in the world in singles but was more well known for his doubles career, where he won 16 titles and reached the finals of both the 1978 Wimbledon and U.S. Open while partnering with Billie Jean King.
Gabi’s mother, AnnaMaria, had four career WTA doubles titles and won two national championships while at USC. She was the 1981 Broderick Award winner as the nation’s top female tennis player.
So naturally, Gabi and her older brother Ryan started off as tennis players. Good ones. Really good. And the sibling rivalry was fierce.
“Tennis didn’t create a very great environment for a friendship between Gabi and I,” Ryan, two years older, said with a smirk. “We were very competitive as tennis players. Even now, whenever we play. She was probably a better tennis player than I was, but because I’m an older brother, I was able to get in her head quite a lot and I was able to win most of the time.”
Both kids played golf, too, but not seriously, tagging along with their parents, who picked up the game after their playing careers ended.
Ryan remembers one day when he lost a tennis tournament in the morning and entered his first golf tournament that afternoon. He placed third. Slowly but surely, Ryan started playing more golf than tennis and quickly became a can’t-miss junior, who ended up turning pro just before his 18th birthday (he played on the Korn Ferry Tour last season).
But Gabi did it differently. Not long after Ray took a job with Tennis Australia and relocated the family there, Gabi rose to the third-ranked player in her age group in Australia. She won the country’s national championship for girls 12 and under. She showed little interest in trading in rackets for 7-irons. In fact, according to her mom, she rarely wanted to play golf or even watch Ryan compete.
“I had to lure her by buying her an ice cream or something like that,” AnnaMaria said. “Or riding in the golf cart.”
When she was 13, Gabi was invited to join Australia’s National Tennis Academy, and the coaches recommended she be homeschooled to focus on tennis. Before the year was over, Gabi was burnt out. A sports psychologist advised her to take a break from the sport. On her first tennis-free day, she had an idea.
“She’s like, ‘Mom, do you want to go hit some golf balls?'” AnnaMaria recalls. “And I said, ‘Sure, let’s go hit some golf balls.'”
Gabi was hooked. A natural, she took formal lessons and entered tournaments. She also fell in love with the atmosphere.
“She’s like, ‘This must be a really piddly tournament because everybody’s chatting with each other,'” AnnaMaria said of her first event. “I said, ‘No, that’s what happens in golf.’ ‘You’re kidding?” Gabi said. ‘Oh my God, I think I’m going to like this.'”
Tennis Australia kept asking when she would come back. It only took a month, but Gabi was a golfer now.
Ruffels switched from tennis to golf at age 14 and before her 15th birthday, she had already broken 80 and was playing for national championships. Soon she was touring schools like Stanford, Duke, South Carolina, Florida, Pepperdine and, most importantly, the University of Southern California.
AnnaMaria didn’t want to push her daughter toward her alma mater, but when Trojans coach Andrea Gaston offered a full-ride scholarship, Gabi had her mind made up. Although Gaston ended up leaving USC after Gabi’s first semester on campus, her intuition to recruit a talented-but-inexperienced player like Ruffels paid off. By her sophomore season in 2018-19, she was one of the best players in the country with eight top-16s and her first collegiate title.
“That’s kind of an ode to her athletic background,” said Justin Silverstein, who took over for Gaston. “She was really raw. She really didn’t know much about golf. And that was kind of interesting.
“You could tell by being around her she’d been trained by high-level professional athletes,” he continued. “She would almost look like at times she was kind of going through the rolodex in her brain of how she was supposed to react to things based on what she’d been taught by her mom, dad and brother. I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again.”
Never was there a better example of that from Ruffels than in the 2019 NCAA Championships.
The Trojans made it to match play for the second straight year and in the quarterfinals, they drew Arizona. Ruffels faced Haley Moore, one of the nation’s best players, in the second-to-last match. Ruffels let a 2-up lead slip away on the second nine and Moore, who clinched the national championship for the Wildcats the year before, made a 15-foot putt on the final hole to send Ruffels and USC home.
“She was really affected by the heat of that moment,” Silverstein remembered. “It was something she hadn’t been in before. I have never asked her about it. I don’t know what it was. But after that Haley Moore match, something changed. … That triggered something in her brain about either how to handle uncomfortable times on the golf course or handle a little bit of failure and move on from it. It quite honestly put her on a different level.”
Ruffels dominated the amateur ranks that summer, winning the prestigious North-South Amateur at Pinehurst before lifting the Robert Cox trophy at Mississippi’s Old Waverly. In August, she won the U.S. Amateur, birdieing three of the final four holes to flip her championship match and beat Stanford’s Albane Valenzuela 1 up.
I’ve played in a U.S. Am — a final U.S. Am. I’ve played in a couple of majors, but nothing can quite compare to the pressure at Q-School.
A year later, the world was very different. The Covid-19 pandemic cut Ruffels’ junior season short before the Trojans could get another chance at the national title. She still had every intention of returning to USC, even after coming oh-so-close to a second straight Women’s Am title, before losing to Rose Zhang in 38 holes in the final.
But the NCAA fall season was canceled and the spring was looking uncertain at best, especially for a California school like USC, where pandemic restrictions were some of the strictest in the nation.
“I just didn’t know what was happening,” Ruffels said. “And school for us was all online. So I knew that if I turned pro, I was also able to finish out my degree online from wherever I was. And also I had like three or four pro events lined up, and I thought I might as well play them as a pro rather than as an amateur.”
Ruffels made her professional debut at the Gainbridge LPGA in February 2021 and finished T36.
Through sponsors’ exemptions and a couple of Monday Qualifiers, she made eight LPGA Tour starts in 2021, but earning a Tour card her first year with so few starts proved to be too difficult.
“I mean, right decision or wrong decision, I don’t know,” she said. “But it’s what I did. And you know, I really feel like I learned a lot in that year.”
She entered Q-Series in 2021, and, for those unfamiliar, LPGA Q-Series is a grind. It’s eight rounds over the course of two weeks, on two different golf courses. Forty-five LPGA Tour cards are at stake. But despite being exempt into the second stage, she failed to move on to the final stage.
“I remember telling my mom who was there with me as my caddie,” Ruffels said, “‘I’ve played in a U.S. Am — a final U.S. Am. I’ve played in a couple of majors, but nothing can quite compare to the pressure at Q-School.'”
It was a big lesson for her, she said, but the miss meant she’d play out most of 2022 on the Epson Tour (the LPGA equivalent of the Korn Ferry Tour), which awards LPGA status to its top-10 finishers in its season-long points race.
Ruffels welcomed the opportunity for another year to learn more and grow as a player. After all, she had only been playing for seven years to that point. She racked up nine top-12s in what was ultimately a solid campaign but fell just a few thousand dollars short, finishing 15th on the money list.
She was headed back to Q-Series, but this time, she had more confidence, learned the lessons she needed and felt her game was trending in the right direction.
She just had to sign up.
As soon as Gabi checked her phone outside the gas station in Mobile, Ala., she called her mom.
“My heart just sank,” AnnaMaria remembers.
Gabi, alone, in a full panic, quickly called anyone that may have been able to help her, but there was nothing that could be done. The registration deadline had passed three weeks before. She never made it to the course.
“It was a long seven-and-a-half-hour drive back to Orlando, that’s for sure,” Gabi said.
There are a number of reasons both Gabi and her mother attribute to the mishap, but they don’t call them excuses. The registration deadline was a few days after the conclusion of the Epson Tour Championship, and Gabi said she was still processing just missing out on her card.
The LPGA Tour had also switched the mechanism it used to give players notifications about upcoming registration deadlines. While she was having problems with her email accounts at that time, she was still getting general emails from the LPGA, so she thought she was signed up for everything. She owns the mistake.
“I thought I was fine,” she said. “I was wrong.”
“There was no way Ray and I could comfort her,” AnnaMaria said. “Other than—”
She sighed and paused for a moment.
“Maybe this was meant for a reason.”
Gabi could have dwelled on the mistake, but less than a week later, it seemed like she had moved on. She posted a swing video on her Instagram. Ryan replied with a comment that showed they were already laughing about it.
“Only thing stopping that swing from making the LPGA Tour is the registration deadline,” he wrote, accompanied by a shifty eyes emoji. (Before you ask, yes, she “liked” the comment, too.)
“I think a lot of people absolutely grilled her for missing that deadline,” said Ryan, who is currently on the European Challenge Tour. “But Gabi couldn’t have handled it any better. … She was laughing about it. She kind of didn’t take herself too seriously. Kind of acknowledged that that was a bit stupid and didn’t blame it on anyone else.”
With her schedule suddenly freed up for the first two weeks of December, Gabi took the opportunity to return to Australia and play the Australian Women’s Open for the first time in her career.
She finished 19th at Victoria Golf Club but her year wasn’t over yet. Gabi decided to play in a different Q-School, Ladies European Tour Q-School, where she finished 8th to earn LET status for 2023. That’s where she made her first three starts of the season.
Then she hit the ground running on the Epson Tour.
In her second Epson event of the season at the Carlisle Arizona Women’s Golf Classic, Gabi was tied for the lead through 36 holes and took a two-shot lead into the final round. She said she was restless the night before, her first sleeping on a lead as a pro. She played off the adrenaline on the front nine and opened up a five-shot lead. She knows because she glanced up at the leaderboard.
“I just remember thinking, no matter what happens, this is such a great learning experience,” Gabi said. “I feel like I go back to that, but I hadn’t really been in that position before and I just want to — you know, if I win, great. If I don’t, then I’ll learn something for next time.”
She cruised to a bogey-free final round and won by two for her first professional title. Her mother had a front-row seat, caddying for her as she has for most of her Epson Tour events.
“She just played such pure golf,” AnnaMaria said of the final round. “I think just having that experience of being in contention and playing to win on Sunday on the back nine, all that is such a great experience. But she was able to deal with, you know, the nerves and everything else. I just think, Wow, that’s just fantastic. It doesn’t matter what level you’re winning at, it really doesn’t. That winning just breeds confidence, whether it’s college or amateur or whatever.”
Seven weeks later she did it again.
At the Garden City Charity Classic at Buffalo Dunes, Gabi opened with 62-64, breaking the Epson Tour 36-hole scoring record that had stood for 21 years.
She managed just a one-under 71 on the final day, but it was still enough to forever leave her mark on the Tour, tying the 54-hole scoring record of 197. It was a four-shot win that she said was actually harder to finish off than the first.
“Just putting yourself in contention and being able to close out a golf tournament is something that no amount of practice can teach you,” Gabi said. “My first win, it was a little bit of a hurdle to try and pull it off. I was so nervous, I just wanted to get it done and on the back nine on Sunday, just all the emotions were kind of running through me and I hadn’t really experienced that before.”
The pair of wins vaulted Ruffels to a wide lead in the Epson Tour season money list. Entering the U.S. Women’s Open this week, she has about a $14,000 lead on second place, which should likely be enough to earn her LPGA Tour membership for next season.
Pretty much everyone close to Ruffels is in agreement that she has been better off having the extra year on the Epson Tour.
That includes her.
“It was almost a blessing in disguise,” she said. “Maybe if I went through Q-School and got my LPGA Tour card, I might not have been ready. And I think a big thing in golf as well, it was learning how to win and I didn’t kill it on the Epson Tour last year in 2022. I came in 15th and I didn’t win at all. I was in contention only, maybe, like twice throughout the year. I feel like there’s still a lot to improve on and use this year as kind of a way to try and improve and really try and show myself that I can compete with the best out here and hopefully bring that to the next stage.”
And just because she isn’t an LPGA member yet doesn’t mean she’s not getting the chance to play in some of the “big” tour’s events.
After her two Epson Tour wins, Ruffels earned a sponsor’s exemption into KPMG Women’s PGA Championship two weeks ago, her eighth start in an LPGA major.
She made the cut and a third-round 68 pulled her into the top 15 heading into Sunday. She finished T24 against the best the women’s game has to offer. That competition took notice.
“It’s hard to look at the positives when you do miss Q-School and you miss signing up — and then you come out and play really well,” said World No. 2 Nelly Korda. “Props to her for being mentally tough … and coming out and dominating the next year.”
While Ruffels is likely to be one of Korda’s peers on the LPGA next season, she’s not looking ahead, despite teeing it up in the same events as her that week at Balustrol and this week at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach. Ruffels punched her ticket when she earned medalist honors at a qualifier in Vancouver, British Columbia. In her three other U.S. Open appearances she’s missed the cut twice and tied for 13th in 2020.
She’s treating the majors the same way she would Epson Tour events. As of now, she has no offers to play any more events on the LPGA Tour this season, but she’s OK with that.
“I’m excited about it,” she said. “I’m excited to keep learning out here and keep playing with these girls and keep testing myself each week just like I have been doing.”
While there’s a ton Ruffels has learned over the past eight months, perhaps she’s most proud of becoming a more organized person — she doesn’t intend on ever making the same mistake twice. Whether it be regularly checking the entry portals and calendaring registration deadlines, she’s doing it. So far it’s working.
“That was definitely a slap in the face to tell myself, OK, you have to be more mature and you have to just be better at organizing yourself with all aspects of my life and I feel I’ve changed that,” she said. “That starts with little habits every day.”
Plus, if there’s anything we’ve learned about Gabi Ruffels, it’s that she’s a quick learner.