August 12, 2019 10:49:47 AM
Ben Portnoy - firstname.lastname@example.org
WEST POINT -- The clicking of camera shutters were the lone sounds on the 18th green at Old Waverly Golf Club Sunday afternoon.
Standing near the middle of the manicured surface, University of Southern California rising junior Gabriela Ruffels looked on -- nervously biting her lip as she swung her putter head into the air.
Roughly 10 feet from her spikes, Ruffels' ball caromed toward the hole. Slowly dribbling toward the cup, it hung on the precipice of the plastic-braced divot for a moment before clanking home.
"To be honest I didn't think that last putt on 18 was going in." Ruffels said. "Seeing that just drip in is probably the best feeling of my life."
With that make she capped off a 1-up, 36-hole victory over Stanford's Albane Valenzuela in the championship round of the 119th U.S. Women's Amateur.
"This is what you dream of when you start playing golf -- winning tournaments like this," Ruffels said. "This is the biggest championship in amateur golf. I'm still speechless but I guess that shows how much it means to me."
On a day that began at 7:30 a.m. with the duos' opening round of the day, the match wasn't resolved until the final two holes.
All square heading to the 17th, Ruffels teed her ball first. Aimed right at the cup on the 168 yard par-3, a shot just to the left of the pin spelled trouble as water lines the entire left side of the hole.
No matter. Ruffels went right at the flag and stuck her six-iron within 10 feet. Following a Valenzuela putt that broke just past the hole and was picked up for par, she delivered what would be the winning stroke with a birdie to take the lead.
"I knew the risk," Ruffels said. "I knew that I could either pull it off or it could be a disaster. But not really looking back on that now because I'm probably not going to play that shot ever again. Super glad it worked out."
Though the match reached a fever pitch down the stretch, Ruffels came out firing on the opening 18 holes of competition -- marching to a 3-up lead by winning hole Nos. 8 through 11 on the pairs' first go around the grounds at Old Waverly Sunday.
Valanzuela battled back by winning four of the next five holes before Ruffels evened the match with a birdie on No. 18 to send the final round of competition into its last 18 holes all square.
"Toward the middle I was struggling a lot," Ruffels conceded. "I told my caddie that it was very hot and I got my umbrella on the last nine and that really helped -- maintaining energy levels was hard."
The second 18 offered an exhilarating back and forth between the two golfers, as neither won back-to-back holes the entire round.
Adding to the drama, Ruffels' caddie and USC coach Justin Silverstein had to leave the course after hole 13 to catch a flight to Santa Barbara, California for a family funeral. Mississippi State golfer Blair Stockett carried her bag the remaining five holes.
"You made it so easy," Ruffels said of Stockett in her victory speech. "You made it so great. Thank you so much."
With the win, the USC product became the first Australian to ever hoist the Robert Cox trophy.
"I'm a proud Australian," Ruffels said. "That's where I started playing golf. I have such a huge support system back there and to win it not only for myself but everyone back home is huge and it just means the world."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.