August 12, 2019 9:30:35 AM
Ben Portnoy - [email protected]
WEST POINT -- Mississippi State junior golfer Blair Stockett basked in the air conditioning.
Escaping the staunch summer heat, Stockett sat on the couch at her cousin's house near the grounds of Old Waverly Golf Club. She savored the cool gusts as the air outside reached more than 90 degrees Sunday.
On the television before her, the championship match of the 119th U.S. Women's Amateur unfolded.
As the University of Southern California's Gabriela Ruffels and Stanford's Albane Valenzuela neared the turn toward their final nine holes, Stockett was put on notice.
She was needed at the course.
"I just needed someone to calm me down, someone to talk to," Ruffels said. "Because I didn't want to be by myself out there."
The plan was made earlier in the day.
USC coach Justin Silverstein was told Monday a family member passed away. He was needed in Santa Barbara, California for the funeral and had to leave the course by 3 p.m.
Ruffels' mother, Anna-Maria Fernandez, enlisted Stockett's time to play standby caddie in case Silverstein needed to depart.
A friend of Ruffels' from collegiate golf and having already caddied for world No. 4 Lucy Li earlier in the week, Stockett agreed.
Trailing by a hole exiting the 12th green, Silverstein alerted Ruffels of his impending exodus.
The transition began around 3:15 p.m.
Walking toward the 15th tee box, Silverstein offered his caddying bib to Stockett.
Before departing he and Ruffels enjoyed a warm embrace.
"Have a safe trip," she said on the cart path.
With Ruffels' nameplate now gracing her back, it was Stockett's bag to carry.
"I know (Ruffels) was probably having some emotions at that point," she said. "I just tried to keep her calm, keep it light -- not so tense."
An Australian by birth, Ruffels' range finder marks her distances in meters as opposed to yards.
Examining the meters-to-yards conversion chart Silverstein left behind, Stockett promptly snagged a six-iron from the bag.
Looking down the treacherous par-3, 17th, the pin location looked menacing. The entire left side of the 168-yard hole -- or 153.6 meters -- is lined with a lake.
Tournament organizers further teased players by moving the hole location to the far left-hand side of the green -- meaning a wayward tee shot ended up wet.
Ruffels took the club and stepped into the tee box.
Setting and swinging, she dropped her ball seven feet from the hole.
"Oh yeah!" Stockett audibly exclaimed.
After Valenzuela sent her initial shot to the right side of the green and narrowly missed her first putt, Ruffels earned a chance at the lead.
Walking around the green, she crouched as Stockett leaned over her back to take a look at the line.
Gathering, Ruffels sunk the seven-footer. One-up, one hole to play.
Ruffels and Stockett again held court.
Standing on the 18th green, the duo discussed Ruffels' impending putt. If she hit it, the Robert Cox Trophy was hers.
"This is moving a lot to the left," Ruffels said.
"Yep, it is," Stockett responded. "And it's really fast downhill. You're downhill, down grain."
"OK, great," Ruffels said sarcastically.
With a slight shift of her arms and smooth contact through the point of impact, Ruffels' ball crept toward the cup.
Slowly meandering across the manicured bent grass, it hung on the ridge of the hole. As it nestled right on the precipice of the cup, Ruffels flung her putter head skyward expecting to head into a playoff.
Reality quickly shifted.
Just milliseconds later, the ball dropped. Match over. She had her title.
"What a putt. What a moment," Stockett said through a wide-eyed smile. "You couldn't ask for a better finish."
Following a short exchange of high-fives and hugs, Ruffels and Stockett wandered off the 18th green and toward the outdoor seating area of the clubhouse for the trophy presentation.
As Ruffels ran through her victory speech, Stockett sat calmly along the white brick wall just 15 feet to the left. Still wearing her caddying bib, the moment was bittersweet.
Stockett had attempted to qualify for the event but fell three strokes short at the U.S. Women's Amateur Sectional in Dayton, Ohio.
But looking upon the trophy and the calmness she had brought Ruffels in the decisive moments of Sunday's final round, her own reality set in.
"What an ending," Stockett said. "If I wasn't playing, this is the best alternative, hands down."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @bportnoy15.