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Californian-turned-Aussie Ryan Ruffels, 17, making pro debut at Torrey Pines

Farmers Insurance Open - Preview Day 3

Ryan Ruffels hits balls on the practice range in preparation for the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.

(Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

Ryan Ruffels is a conflicted Californian.

The 17-year-old, who will make his PGA Tour debut Thursday in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, was born in Orlando, Fla., raised most of his first 11 years in Laguna Niguel, and then the family moved to Melbourne in his father’s native Australia.

Ray Ruffels was a Davis Cup tennis player and won a Grand Slam doubles title in the 1970 Australian Open. His wife, Anna-Maria Fernandez-Ruffels, is an American who captured five WTA doubles titles during her career in the ‘80s.

Tennis teaching opportunities took them to Orange County, and their son was a quintessential SoCal sports kid, hustling between tennis matches and golf tournaments. When they packed up for Australia, Ryan didn’t have the hint of an Aussie accent.

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“I had lived my whole life in the U.S., so it’s funny,” Ruffels said Wednesday, relaxing on a hotel patio that overlooks the Torrey Pines South Course. “When I go back to Australia they tease me because of my American accent. When I’m in the States, they tease me because of my Australian accent.”

For the record: He now sounds no more American than Greg Norman or Jason Day.

“I’ve got a lot of good mates, some family in this part of the world,” Ruffels said. “California is definitely a part of me. But I’ve done all of my golf progression and developing for golf in Australia. So I definitely feel like I should represent Australia. I feel Australian, for sure.”

There’s one more reason for him to feel at home in San Diego, and it’s a considerable factor why he was given a sponsor’s exemption at Torrey Pines to make his American pro debut. Only 17 months ago, Ruffels captured the 15-17 division of the Junior World Championships on the South Course, site of the 2008 U.S. Open.

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Ruffels, then 16, shot five under par on the South over four rounds, rallying on the weekend with scores of 67-69 to prevail by two shots.

“Obviously, I was pretty keen to make my start here,” Ruffels said. “It’s a course on the PGA Tour that I’ve had success on. It’s a lot different than when I played it in July for the Junior World. It was drier and there wasn’t as much rough.”

In going only 17 months between winning the Junior World and playing at Torrey Pines as a pro, Ruffels will break a mark set by Day, who accomplished the double in 3½ years.

At the time Ruffels won the Junior World he’d captured the Australian Junior earlier that year in 2014, was the youngest to seize his country’s prestigious Riversdale Cup, and as an amateur in the Australian Open he contended before finishing tied for 28th.

That week in the Open, Ruffels played practice rounds with Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott.

Ian Baker-Finch, the Australian former British Open winner who is a commentator for CBS, got to know the Ruffels family when they lived in Orlando. Baker-Finch said Wednesday that he has played regularly with Ryan Ruffels over the last three years and felt he was ready to turn pro.

“He’s won at every level,” Baker-Finch said. “He’s got a tremendous amount of confidence, and he’s always asking the right questions. He’s got some good spunk and fire as well.”

There have been notable flameouts at a young age — Ty Tryon and Tadd Fujikawa among them. But there are encouraging examples too, including Day and Justin Rose, who already have major wins and hold rankings in the world’s top 10.

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“I’m playing really really good and I’m happy with my game coming in,” Ruffels said. “I know it’s going to be different going out there as a pro. There’s nothing really that’s changed other than a different title next to my name. I’m still Ryan Ruffels. I’m still going to be playing the same golf.”

tod.leonard@sduniontribune.com


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