Gabi Ruffels now playing for money, with her 2019 US Amateur trophy – Photo Steve Gibbons USGA
The LPGA Tour season for 2021 essentially gets underway this week and while one event has already been played in Lake Buena Vista over a month ago, this week’s Gainbridge LPGA event at Lake Nona Golf and Country Club in Orlando signals the start of 33 further events this season.
The Australasian contingent is headed by Lydia Ko who will be joined by Katherine Kirk, Sarah Jane Smith, Sarah Kemp and recently turned professional Gabriela Ruffels in representing those from down under.
The 2019 US Women’s Amateur Champion and runner-up in the same event last year, Ruffels has recorded top twenty finishes in three of her five LPGA Tour starts to date including twice in majors and is generally considered an outstanding prospect for Australian golf in the future.
Having finished her time at the University of Southern California Ruffels now gets the chance to play for money and many expect her to earn a lot of it.
Notably missing from the Australasians who play the LPGA Tour is Minjee Lee who is not expected to begin her 2021 season until later in March.
Ko is a member at this golf course and was keen to point out that the fact that where the event was being played a role in her decision to tee it up this week.
“Yeah, obviously extra excited to play at a golf course that I play at for the majority of my off weeks and off-season,” said the New Zealander.
“I was kind of surprised when I heard the tournament was coming here. I know there was a little bit where none of us were sure we were going to play this event. When I heard it was at Nona I wasn’t sure if this tournament was going to be on my schedule, but being here at the course I pretty much live and practice at, I knew it was kind of a no-brainer for me to play.
“Right after CME I went to Korea and I took five, six weeks off. With the quarantine there that took another couple weeks.
“I mentioned like a few days or a week ago I had deviated septum surgery, so that took me out for two to three weeks. So I’ve only been back in Florida for three to four weeks, so ever since I’ve been back I’ve been slowly getting back into things, working out where my trainers, working on the swing with Sean (coach Foley) .
“So, yeah, I wish I had a bit more time to get ready for this event. That’s the time I had, so I tried to be as productive as I can. I think this off-season probably the difference was I tried to spend a little bit more time on the golf course than practicing a lot just on the facilities, especially as this event was going to be my first one.
“So tried to kind of see and understand and get comfortable with playing. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how well you hit it on the practice days. You’ve got to be able to bring it on the golf course. So I think that was probably the biggest difference for me this off-season compared to the others.”
Given Ko’s relative slip from the level of her play in her early years on the LPGA Tour she was asked if winning so early in her career might have worked against her. Her response was interesting and considered.
“I don’t think so. (Laughter.) I think a lot of things happened for me at such an early age, and obviously things that I could have only dreamed of. Even my first win in Canada, it happened like without — I don’t know when it sunk in, and definitely didn’t sink in like when this tournament finished. It took a while for me to kind of understand that whole situation. Might have taken a year after that for me to understand that.
“But I’m sure at points I might have said to myself, Maybe if those things didn’t happen early then there wouldn’t have been as much expectations. At the same time, I think because those things happened early I was able to come out on tour a little earlier and a lot of opportunities were given to me.
“So I think you just got to be grateful for everything that’s happened. Let’s say even if it was just the end of my career right now, I think I’ve got so many things to be thankful for. So I think that just also at the same time just motivates me and just going to push me to become a better version of myself.
“At the same time, I can’t try to be the person I was when I was world No. 1 or winning at those moments because I’m just not the same anymore. Experience changes you. I just have to be the best player, the best person, I can be at this moment and not compare myself to my past.”
Katherine Kirk played very well late in 2020 as she ran up several top tens in quick succession and although that form dropped off a little in the last few events of the year her results were encouraging.
Sarah Jane Smith is still regaining her playing skills following a departure from the LPGA Tour to have her first child eighteen months ago.
Kemp is well outside the top 200 in the world and has done well to retain her (albeit limited) LPGA Tour status.
The tournament will also see a rare appearance from former world number one and the player who most think is the greatest female player of all time, Annika Sorenstam, who is playing what is essentially a home event given she lives at Lake Nona.