August 10, 2019 10:54:35 PM
From Special Reports
WEST POINT -- Albane Valenzuela and Gabriela Ruffels, two international players who are standouts at American universities, will square off in Sunday's 36-hole final of the 119th U.S. Women's Amateur Championship at Old Waverly Golf Club after producing dramatic semifinal victories.
Valenzuela, 21, of Switzerland, a rising senior at Stanford University who is No. 5 in the Women's World Amateur Golf Ranking&153;, needed 19 holes to edge feisty high school sophomore Megha Ganne, 15, of Holmdel, N.J., in Saturday's first semifinal.
Ruffels, 19, of Australia, a rising junior at the University of Southern California who is No. 52 in the WAGR, was also taken the distance against Valenzuela's Stanford teammate and world No. 2 Andrea Lee, 20, of Hermosa Beach, Calif., before posting a 2-up victory.
This sets up just the third championship match between a pair of international players in the event, and the first since 2016 when Eun Jeong Seong, of the Republic of Korea, defeated Virginia Elena Carta, of Italy. The only other final between two international players took place in 1910.
Valenzuela, the 2017 Women's Amateur runner-up, and Ruffels, the winner of last month's North & South Women's Amateur at Pinehurst, are each seeking to win their country's first Women's Amateur title. Libby Goggin (1981) and Anne-Marie Knight (1995) are the only Australians to previously advance to the title match.
Lee, making her seventh and likely last U.S. Women's Amateur appearance (she plans to turn pro after her final season at Stanford), saw her dream of reaching the final end in the semifinals for the second time in five years. The first came in 2014 as a 15-year-old.
An overnight storm brought nearly 2 inches of rain to the course, making the 6,425-yard layout play even longer and more difficult, especially when shots found the 2½-inch deep bermudagrass rough.
But the grind of the long week perhaps had more of an effect on the competitors as none of the four duplicated their birdie fest of the previous day.
Valenzuela, who played bogey-free golf in her quarterfinal win over Aneka Seumanutafa, built an early 3-up lead on Ganne, a four-time Drive, Chip & Putt national finalist, winning the par-5 second with a par and the par-4 fourth with a bogey. Then she started to struggle on the greens, three-putting the sixth green -- she lipped out a 4-footer -- to lose the hole and missing a 7-footer for birdie on No. 9, eventually losing the hole when Ganne converted from 4 feet.
Ganne, however, showed no quit after Valenzuela regained her 2-up advantage on 12, thanks to a winning par. Two down with five to play, Ganne drove the 236-yard, par-4 14th hole and converted the 12-foot eagle putt and followed up those heroics with an up-and-down birdie from the pine straw on the par-5 15th hole, nearly holing out the 50-yard pitch-and-run.
"That was probably the highlight of my week just because that's what you play these events for," said Ganne, a product of The First Tee of Essex County (N.J.). "Pars are nice, but when you get under pressure and people are watching and you're in a match and you're down and you pull off just two incredible shots like that, it really just feels good, and you can hold on to those memories for a long time."
On the par-3 17th, Ganne's tee shot landed underneath the lip of a greenside bunker and she was forced to take an unplayable lie. She eventually conceded Valenzuela's birdie to go 1 down heading to the closing hole.
But the 18th hole, a par 4 that sharply doglegs left around a large pond, had been good to Ganne all week. She won the hole against 2019 U.S. Women's Open low amateur Gina Kim in a 1-up, Round-of-64 victory on Wednesday. The next day, she birdied the hole to extend the match against Bentley Cotton (19-hole win) and then won the hole again in the Round of 16 that afternoon against No. 64 seed Emily Hawkins, eventually winning in 20 holes.
On Saturday, she would win it again, this time with a conceded birdie when Valenzuela failed to get up and down for par from greenside rough after her approach nearly found the penalty area. Ganne had stuffed her approach to 6 feet.
Valenzuela, a veteran of 11 major championships (she shared low-amateur honors in the Evian Championship two weeks ago) and the 2016 Summer Olympics (T-21), composed herself walking to the 10th tee, the first extra hole.
"I told myself, do not regret this," said Valenzuela. "Do not let it slip off your hands. You have control over it. And even when you start feeling a little nervous, I'm like, I want this. I wanted to go to the finals, and so that's what you need to do to go to the finals is make birdie."
Valenzuela made herself a prophet. She drained a 10-foot birdie putt and then watched Ganne miss left from 8 feet to secure the victory.
"A win is a win," said Valenzuela, who played the equivalent of 1-under-par golf, with the usual match-play concessions. "I didn't have my best game today. I missed some shots out there. But I just knew I had to stick to my game plan; eventually they'd fall, and it fell in the playoff, the one putt that I really struck well. It was a tough match. She's a great competitor. She has amazing composure for a 15-year-old, and she made me work hard."
Added Ganne, who is exempt into the next two U.S. Women's Amateurs: "I'm ready to be back here again, and I'm ready to go to the final and win it in the coming years. I know that I have everything it takes. I've just got to test my game against really good players like Gin Kim in [the Round of] 64 and Albane, and I got to compare and see where they're better and where I'm not, and I'm ready to work on those this winter, and I'll be back next year."
Ruffels, competing in her first U.S. Women's Amateur, finally played the 18th hole for the first time since earning the sixth seed from the second and final stroke-play round on Tuesday. It went the distance because Lee took 14 holes to convert her first birdie. A tap-in on the shortened 14th trimmed Ruffels' lead to two holes, Lee's first win since she took the par-5 second when Ruffels three-putted.
Facing a make-or-go-home 15-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th, Lee converted to send the match to 18. It was similar to the clutch putt she made on Thursday afternoon on No. 18 to force extra holes in the Round of 16 against co-medalist Alexa Pano, a match she won in 23 holes.
"I was actually kind of surprised early," said Ruffels of Lee, a player she beat last October, 2 and 1, to secure the East Lake Cup for USC in the final against Stanford. "I knew that she didn't have her best stuff today, but I knew that she was clutch and that she was going to come in pretty strong. On 17, I knew she was going to make that putt. She does that stuff. I knew I just kind of had to keep calm, keep my head down, stay patient, and that's what I did."
On 18, after Ruffels knocked her 7-iron approach from 156 yards to 9 feet, Lee's shot from the fairway landed 22 feet above the flagstick, leaving a tricky birdie attempt. She took plenty of time studying the line, getting assistance from dad/caddie James before sending the putt 6 feet by the hole. Ruffels carefully trundled her attempt to 3 feet, and when Lee couldn't make the comebacker for par, she conceded the match.
"I've never played a 36-hole final but starting the week this is where you want to be," said Ruffels, whose victory over fellow Australian Doey Choi in the North & South final was over 18 holes. "No complaints. I'm really looking forward to tomorrow."
The two semifinals winners are now exempt into the 2020 U.S. Women's Open at Champions Golf Club in Houston, Texas. The champion can play the Women's Open as an amateur or professional, but the runner-up must be an amateur.
The start of the semifinals was pushed back 30 minutes due to the course receiving nearly 2 inches of rain from Friday's storm.
Both semifinal losers, Andrea Lee and Megha Ganne, received bronze medals.
For the 19th time in the last 25 playings of the U.S. Women's Amateur, the championship match will feature at least one international player. Since 1995, the only years that had all-American finals were 2000, 2002, 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2015.
Some might think 13 to be an unlucky number. Not so for finalist Albane Valenzuela. The 21-year-old was the No. 13 seed for match play when she reached the final match in 2017 at San Diego Country Club before losing to Sophia Schubert, 6 and 5. And the Stanford University senior earned the same seed this year. Now she is hoping for better luck in the championship match.
Gabriela Ruffels may never be allowed in Palo Alto, Calif., after dispatching her second Stanford player of the week. She beat incoming freshman Brooke Seay, 6 and 5, in the Round of 16, and Andrea Lee on Saturday. She gets a third Cardinal on Sunday.
University of Southern California coach Justin Silverstein is serving as Ruffels' caddie. Valenzuela has her brother, Alexis, on the bag, just like in 2017 and at other major events. Alexis qualified for this year's U.S. Junior Amateur, but didn't make match play.
Valenzuela's father, Alberto, flew in from the Bahamas, where the family now resides, for the semifinals. He is a former standout player at UCLA. In an ironic twist, Ruffels' mother, Anna-Maria, won a national collegiate singles title for crosstown rival USC, the same school her daughter attends. Gabriela's father, Ray, was the 1978 Wimbledon and US Open mixed doubles runner-up with hall-of-famer Billie Jean King. He also won an Australian Open doubles title and was a three-time Australian Open semifinalist in singles.
The 36-hole championship match today will begin at 7:30 a.m. and continue at 11:30 p.m. Live streaming on usga.org is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., with FS1 picking up the live coverage of the afternoon round at 1 p.m.