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Ruffels: 'Tough' to skip ANWA, but goal is to play in '21, graduate from USC

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After seeing some of her peers have to choose between the ANA Inspiration and the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur last year, Gabriela Ruffels imagined what’d she would’ve done in that situation.

“At the time, I didn’t really know what I would do,” Ruffels said.

As it turned out, it didn’t take long for Ruffels to be faced with that choice. The USC junior and reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion received exemptions into both events, which again overlap this year. The decision was even more difficult than she anticipated.

Ultimately, she decided to accept her spot in the ANA, which handed out five exemptions to amateurs on Thursday.

“I was lucky enough to get exemptions into both and I knew I had to make that decision, and yeah, it was so hard [to make],” Ruffels told last week in Westlake Village, California. “I really wanted to play both.”

U.S. Women's Amateur champ among five ams invited to ANA Inspiration

Gabi Ruffels, the reigning U.S. Women's Amateur champion, is one of five amateurs invited to compete in the LPGA's first major of the season.

The 19-year-old Australian, who made her major debut last year at the U.S. Women’s Open, will play in four of the five LPGA majors this year, missing out on only the KPMG Women’s PGA. The ANA, though, will be a home game for her. Her parents moved to Palm Desert, California, six months ago, and Ruffels spent much of the summer in the area. She’s played Mission Hills, the host course for the ANA, a handful of times since the move.

“I know the course pretty well,” she said.

While Ruffels is excited about a busy major schedule this year, she also values the significance of the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, which last year earned largest TV rating for a women’s golf tournament since the 2016 U.S. Women’s Open. If she qualifies again, there’s no way she’s missing it next year, she said.

“Playing Augusta National and playing the second ever women’s event there would’ve been really special,” Ruffels said, “but I’m going to be amateur for two more years, so it’s my goal to play Augusta next year.”

Ruffels is committed to earning her degree at USC, a decision that will keep her amateur until at least next summer.

"This decision was incredibly tough for Gabi and her family," USC head coach Justin Silverstein said. "I speak for a lot of coaches when I say we wish players didn't have to choose between two such prestigious events. I really respect how Gabi went about making this decision, and the fact that she is going to stay amateur and graduate after next season helped guide her through the process."

The choice to stick around for four years has become increasingly rare among the top collegians. Just this year, five of the top players in women’s college golf turned pro after the fall, including Ruffels’ USC teammate Jennifer Chang.

Ruffels’ brother, Ryan, never even went to college, deciding to jump straight to the pros in 2016 at age 17. He just earned his Korn Ferry Tour card for the first time at Q-School last December.

“I kind of learned from my brother, to be honest,” Ruffels said. “He turned pro super early, got seven PGA Tour starts and wasn’t able to get his card, and then kind of fell back a little bit. Seeing him, I realized that golf isn’t everything; it might not work out. I saw he was having trouble and realized it’s not that easy. … Especially in women’s golf, there’s no rush. I’ll be playing golf a long time and I definitely have my sights set on turning pro, but my first immediate goal is getting that degree.”

Women's college golf: Spring season preview

Women's college golf: Spring season preview

Ruffels is currently ranked 15th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and is a key player on a USC team that sits fifth in Golfstat’s College Rankings. Ruffels, though, struggled in the fall, missing an event and not finishing better than T-20 in three starts.

Much of that was pressure caused by heightened expectations. Ruffels is determined to find her groove this spring and improve on her No. 184 Golfstat rank after the fall.

“I’d never really been in that situation before, knowing that there were going to be more eyes on me because I’d just won a huge tournament, but I think it was a great learning curve,” Ruffels said. “I wanted to see how I handled the spotlight and the pressure, and I’ll admit I didn’t have the greatest fall, didn’t play up to the standards that I would’ve liked, but I learned a lot.

“I can’t wait to get after it this semester.”