It’s been a hard task for Victoria’s Ryan Ruffels to escape the media attention at the Asia-Pacific Amateur.
In 2014, Ruffels was the great Victorian hope at Royal Melbourne. This year in Hong Kong, he’s the best ranked golfer in the field.
Just minutes after arriving at the Clearwater Bay Golf and Country Club, Ruffels was flanked by a camera crew on the putting green. After finishing his round on the 9th, Ruffels was whisked away in a golf cart for an extensive TV interview, while the remaining Aussies used the practice facilities, or waited patiently by the bus.
The bus to the hotel was the only possible place to speak to the Golf Australia national squad member, who again was gracious with his time.
“That interview was the only one for today, but tomorrow is going to be a bit messier, and I have quite a few commitments alongside Anthony [Murdaca].”
While the rest of the Australian team joked about spending that afternoon in the pool, Ruffels admitted that giving up his free time for media requirements is a great problem to have.
“Well last year it wasn’t really because of my ability, and I wasn’t as good of a player,” said Ruffels of the media attention.
“This year, I’m the highest ranked player in the field. But at least with Anthony having to back up his title, we’re sharing that expectation — and there’s quite a bit of attention on him too.
I definitely don’t see it as a bad thing, it just shows that I’ve played well this season and that I’m in good form.”
That form saw Ruffels upstage many PGA Tour professionals in July with an opening round 66 at the Canadian Open. In the aftermath, Ruffels earned the media’s favour and was touted as “the next Jason Day” — who happened to be two shots behind Ruffels.
But equalisation soon kicked in. As the promising junior fell away to miss the third round cut, Jason Day clinched another PGA Tour title.
The following month, at the U.S. Amateur, Ruffels again opened with a 66, and qualified 8th for the matchplay. Two days later he was eliminated with a “devastating” loss to 37-year-old Todd Mitchell, a local golfer ranked at No. 2528 in the world at the time.
In the excitement around Ruffels’ potential, it’s easy to forget that the two time Australian Junior champion is still in school. In just a couple of months, the Victoria Golf Club member will be unleased from the shackles of study and will be able focus on turning the moniker of “golfing prodigy” into “golfing star”.
An easy way to achieve that is to earn an exemption into next year’s U.S. Masters, an almost expectation on paper but, as the U.S. Amateur showed, is less certain in practice.
Standing in his way is a slew of talented golfers, including three that have already played at Augusta.
It’s hard to top the resume of Korean Gunn Yang, who turns 22 on Wednesday morning. Yang has almost five years’ experience on Ruffels, and the confidence to achieve anything after his 2014 U.S. Amateur win.
One the other end of the age spectrum is China’s Gunn Tianglang, who, as a 14-year-old, won the 2012 Asia-Pacific to become the youngest golfer to make the cut in a major.
Even Murdaca’s win in 2014 came in spite of the expectation that surrounded the others in the field. As the host nation, Australia was allowed to enter ten players instead of the usual six, and the South Australian scraped in as the country's tenth best in the world rankings.
Murdaca could have flown in under the radar that week, if he didn’t completely blitz the field with a seven shot victory.
And that’s the thing about golf and expectations. Nothing is ever played on paper, and it’s something that the well-spoken Ruffels will be very aware of when facing the media later today.
Most of threats to Ruffels’ chances this week are well known, especially the ones from his own country. But like 2012 and 2014, there’s always a chance that there is an unknown golfer lurking in the field, waiting to make his break.
Masters qualification or not, if Ruffels continues to impress, there’s every chance he will get to Augusta National at some point. And if he impresses on that stage, you can bet Todd Mitchell will be telling everyone within earshot of the time he beat this young upstart Aussie in matchplay.