In Women’s Golf, Virus Upends the Typical Paths to a Pro Career

ROCKVILLE, Md. — The Jacksonville Amateur Championship in Florida is not a typical stop on the summer circuit for the reigning U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. But Gabriela Ruffels wanted competitive tournament rounds ahead of her title defense, so in July she joined two others as the first women to play in the men’s event.

She missed the cut in Florida, but the rounds were a rare chance for her to sharpen her game before the 2020 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Woodmont Country Club, where she lost to 17-year-old Rose Zhang on Sunday on the 38th hole in the final match.

“I didn’t play great,” she said about the men’s event in late July, “but it was the best challenge ever and really, really good practice for this event.”

Given the U.S. Women’s Amateur championship’s prominence — it is the third oldest championship conducted by the United States Golf Association — Ruffels’s victory at last year’s event would have typically boosted what remained of her amateur career before she potentially turned professional.

But the coronavirus pandemic left her scrambling to map out playing opportunities and her path forward since the cancellation of the college golf season in March. With fewer mini tour options for women than for men, the search for competitive events of any kind became onerous in April and May when college golfers would have been playing for conference and N.C.A.A. titles. The elite amateur events did not resume until mid-July, with the North & South Amateur Championship.

Qualifying schools for professional tours have been postponed, leaving those without tour cards in limbo for another year, an unusually long stretch to have to look for starts without the typical path to the highest professional level.

Golf’s best young women’s players found mini-tour events and local club games in spring when they would typically be competing for prestigious amateur titles and national championships.

After sitting at home in the initial weeks of the pandemic, Ruffels went to Florida to practice and spend a month with her brother, Ryan, a 22-year-old professional on the Korn Ferry Tour, a developmental circuit. She then played in two events on the Cactus Tour, a women’s professional mini-tour, and finished with a win and a runner-up result in late June.

But Ruffels, a top-ranked junior tennis player who switched to golf at 14, did not expect to even get a chance to defend her U.S. Women’s Amateur title this summer. “I did not think they were going to hold the event,” she said.

The U.S.G.A. canceled 10 other championships, making the Women’s Amateur the first of the year. To play the tournament, the U.S.G.A. instituted coronavirus testing protocols and made significant departures from tradition, particularly with the cancellation of qualifying and the creation of an all-exempt field. The Women’s Amateur is one of the four U.S.G.A. championships proceeding without qualifiers, joining the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open.

“Qualifying is our backbone, our DNA, and how we’ve operated since the beginning of time, and coming to the conclusion to cancel qualifying was absolutely gut-wrenching,” said Shannon Rouillard, the U.S.G.A.’s senior director for championships.

She said its coronavirus testing and screening protocols modeled those of the PGA Tour, which resumed its schedule on June 11. “To our knowledge, there is not another amateur championship outside of U.S.G.A. championships that are testing its players,” Rouillard added.

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 higher ranked international players in the field. A senior at No. 1-ranked Wake Forest, she faced a sudden 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. championship to play for, Liu decided to stay in the United States, playing Woodmont with her college coach, Kim Lewellen, caddying.

Liu, who had been 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 of Switzerland played in the U.S. Women’s Amateur, where Lewellen has operated as a coach and filled a parental role. She regularly picked up groceries and toiletries for Knecht, who has no car in North Carolina. She made meals, helped players move in and decorate their apartments, and provided guidance. “Siyun now won’t see her family for well over a year,” Lewellen said.

As with Ruffels entering the Jacksonville Amateur, the disrupted schedule forced the Wake Forest team into a mix of homebound routines and makeshift schedules to stay sharp and find competitive reps before this summer stretch. Emilia Migliaccio, at No. 4 the highest ranked player at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, had not picked up a weight in four months and only did body weight workouts at home before the event.

Rachel Kuehn, the player who entered the tournament in perhaps the best form after a successful summer, found TikTok notoriety for indoor chipping videos. Lauren Walsh, who flew home in March at the start of the pandemic and did not come back this summer for the Women’s Amateur, 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 U.S. Women’s Amateur was full of players discovering if there is still a path to a pro career; the evaporation of playing opportunities for women has had a drastic impact on the process, to the point where it is believed that players in the lower pro and amateur levels may abandon any pursuit of a golf career.

Liu and others are living in that decision. “She’s getting her master’s, and she’s very good in business analytics,” Lewellen said. “And if things don’t open up for her to be able to play at a professional level, I could see her veering off and going that direction.”

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