Georgia on her mind: Young golfer wins spot at national tournament
MATTAPOISETT – Eleven-year-old Willow Ruel doesn’t think of herself as a future golf pro, despite qualifying for the Augusta National.
“I never expected this. I just play golf for fun,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. But she was motivated by a puppy named Missy Elliot, named for the rapper.
Ruel’s journey to nationals started when she competed at the Bay Club in Mattapoisett, earning third place to qualify to compete at sub-regionals at LeBaron Hills in Lakeville.
“Her dad told her if she qualified at sub-regionals, she could get a puppy,” her mom, Jennifer Risio, said. Willow earned first place, and the puppy, a border collie and Australian shepherd mix named Missy Elliot, now sits beside them on the couch.
“At regionals, dad bet me another dog because he didn’t think I could win,” Ruel said. It was enough motivation because Ruel earned first place again at the TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, CT, securing her place at the Augusta National.
Her father, Jon Ruel, also her primary coach, was eating his words.
“He took it back and said one dog was enough,” Ruel said.
In Augusta she will be participating in the Drive, Chip, and Putt Competition, a nationwide junior golf tournament where participants ages 7-15 advance through local, sub-regional and regional qualifying rounds to earn a place in the National Finals. There are four age groups at the tournament, with ten girls each from all over the nation.
Ruel is a fifth-grader at Old Hammondtown School. She first started golfing with her dad, at the range at the Bay Club.
“I’ve been doing drives and putts since I was six,” she said. Her coach at the Bay Club is Ben Egan. She’s also been on the PGA junior team for three years, where she has been the only girl among “a bunch of seventh-grade boys.”
She comes from a family of athletes. Her mom teaches yoga and works as an assistant manager at the Mattapoisett Wellness Center, and her dad has done golf tours with her grandfather, Dr. Jon Ruel, who Ruel calls “Papa Ruel.”
“Her grandpa is her number one fan,” said Risio. “He spends hours on end chipping, putting, hitting and driving with her. He’s always asking if she wants to play. He’s been a great coach.”
Ruel’s family can see a future for her in the sport. “If she stuck with golf, she could follow it through to high school and college if she wanted,” Risio said.
Ruel immediately shakes her head.
“My main sport is hockey,” she said, stating that she plans to be a pro hockey player. “It’s my favorite sport because it’s more competitive and faster, and I like getting to work as a team.”
Ruel also plays soccer with Mariner Youth Soccer, where she plays on the sixth grade team.
Risio says that when Ruel competes, she has a “cool demeanor about her.”
“She doesn’t drop and fall and fail, she soaks it up and figures out how to improve, and that’s what I like about Willow. She’s like, I’ll get it next time.”
Her family describes Ruel as calm and collected on the days she has a golf tournament.
“It’s so much fun watching her play,” Risio added. “I cackle like a crow when she hits some shots sometimes; they're so good! I can’t believe she just did that!”
Ruel will attend the Nationals on April 3 with her entire family. Her parents, grandparents, brother, sister, aunt and uncle will all be there to cheer her on. Her family said they’re excited to visit a historic golf course and see Ruel compete.
Ruel isn’t anxious — at least, not about the competition.
“I’m nervous for the interviews and stuff; I don’t want to be on TV. I just want to play golf,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to seeing Georgia, meeting the pros, and stepping on the greens.”