ROCKVILLE, Md. – The Jacksonville Amateur Championship in Florida is not a typical stop on the summer circuit for the reigning American women's amateur champion. But Gabriela Ruffels wanted competitive tournament rounds for her title defense, so she joined two others in July as the first women to play in the men's event.
She missed the cut in Florida, but rounds were rare. opportunity for her to hone her game for the 2020 US Women's Amateur at Woodmont Country Club, where she lost to 17-year-old Rose Zhang on the 38th hole in the final game on Sunday.
"I didn't play great," she said of the men's event at the end of July, "but it was the best challenge ever and really, really good for this. event. & # 39;
Given the prominence of the American Women's Amateur Championship – it is the third oldest championship led by the United States Golf Association – Ruffels & # 39; victory at last's event years would typically have boosted what was left of her amateur career before she possibly turned professional.
But the coronavirus pandemic forced her to chart playing opportunities and her way forward since the college cancellation- golf season in March With fewer mini-tour options for women than men, the search for competitive events of any kind got tough in April and May, when college golfers are said to have played for conferences and NCAA titles. meetings did not resume until mid-July, with the North and South Amateur Championship.
Qualifying schools for professional tours have been postponed, leaving those without tour tickets in the dark for another year, an unusually long trajectory. looking for starts without the typical path to the highest professional level.
The best young ladies in golf found mini-tour events and local club games in the spring, where they normally compete for prestigious amateur titles and national championships.
After sitting at home during the early weeks of the pandemic, Ruffels went to Florida to practice and spent a month with her brother Ryan, a 22-year-old professional on the Korn Ferry Tour, a development circuit. She then played in two events on the Cactus Tour, a women's professional mini-tour, finishing with a win and a second place finish in late June.
But Ruffels, a top-ranked junior tennis player who switched to golf at the age of 14, didn't expect to get even a chance this summer to defend her American Women's Amateur title. "I didn't think they were going to hold the event," she said.
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The USGA canceled 10 other championships, making the Women's Amateur the first of the year. To play the tournament, the U.S.G.A. has instituted coronavirus testing protocols and deviated significantly from tradition, notably through the cancellation of qualifications and the creation of an all-exempt field. The Women's Amateur is one of four U.S.G.A. championships that continue without qualifiers compete in the US Amateur, US Open and US Women's Open.
"Qualification is our backbone, our DNA and how we've worked since the dawn of time, and coming to the conclusion to cancel qualifying was absolutely heartbreaking," said Shannon Rouillard, senior director of the USGA for championships.
She said the protocols for coronavirus testing and screening were modeled on those of the PGA Tour, which resumed its schedule on June 11. “To our knowledge, there is no other amateur championship outside of USGA championships that put his players to the test, ”added Rouillard.
The pandemic left the field without many international players. Only two of the top 10 in the current World Amateur Golf Rankings were in the field.
Siyun Liu of China, ranked No. 21, played as one of the top ranked international players in the field. She was senior at No. 1 at Wake Forest and faced a sudden he decision to stay in the United States or go home to China when her college season ended abruptly in March. Without a conference or N.C.A.A. Liu decided to stay in the United States and Woodmont played caddying with her college coach, Kim Lewellen.
Liu, who was invited to the canceled Augusta National Women's Amateur, is one of three international players on the Wake Forest team who stayed in the United States. Her teammate Vanessa Knecht from Switzerland played in the American Women’s Amateur, where Lewellen has worked as a coach and played a parenting role. She regularly bought groceries and toiletries for Knecht, who doesn't own a car in North Carolina. She prepared meals, helped players move in and furnish their apartments, and provided guidance. "Siyun will not see her family for over a year now," Lewellen said.
Just like when Ruffels entered the Jacksonville Amateur, the disrupted schedule forced the Wake Forest team into a mix of home routines and impromptu schedules. to stay sharp and find competitive representatives for this summer period. Emilia Migliaccio, ranked number 4 highest ranked player in the US Women's Amateur, hadn't picked up any weight in four months and was only doing bodyweight workouts at home for the event.
Rachel Kuehn, the player who entered the tournament in arguably the best form after a successful summer, found TikTok fame for indoor chipping videos. Lauren Walsh, who flew home in March at the start of the pandemic and didn't return for the Women's Amateur this summer, set up a temporary practice facility in her garden in Ireland.
The PGA Tour and other professional men's tours went on hiatus and then resumed with guaranteed opportunities to play and earn income. The American Women's Amateur was full of players discovering whether there is still a path to a professional career; the evaporation of women's play opportunities has had a drastic impact on the process, to the point where it is believed that players in the lower pro and amateur levels can abandon any pursuit of a golf career.
Liu and others live by that decision. "She's getting her master's degree and she's really good at business analytics," said Lewellen. "And if things don't open up for her to play at a professional level, I could see her go that way."