On the banks of California’s Lake Nacimiento stands a lake house, and on the front porch overlooking the breathtaking view is rising golfer Johnny Ruiz. The vacation spot has become an annual destination for him and his family, with this being his only time to unwind amidst a busy Mackenzie Tour schedule.
But Ruiz isn’t here to reflect on a career-best season. Pretty soon, it’s back to his stomping grounds in southern California to prepare for his first season on the Web.com Tour.
“How can I get better and get in the top 25?” Ruiz thinks to himself. “I give myself a pat on the back after the Mackenzie Tour, but now I have to go play well with better players. Once I get back home, it’s back to grind mode for sure.”
Johnny Ruiz came back to the #MackenzieTour strong this year ?
— Mackenzie Tour (@PGATOURCanada) September 18, 2017
As a child growing up in Camarillo, just northwest of Los Angeles, Ruiz quickly became fond of baseball, football, and basketball, and never encountered the game of golf unless he happened to sit down with his grandpa to watch a few holes. Many golfers you’ll find on tours have held a golf club since toddlers practically, but Ruiz was a late bloomer.
How late? His first visit to a golf course didn’t come until age 14 when his grandparents encouraged him to come along, and months later, Ruiz was ready to quit three sports and concentrate solely on golf.
“I wasn’t even that good at it when I quit baseball and decided to play for the high school golf team,” Ruiz said in an exclusive interview with CLICKON. “There were a couple good golfers on the team that I had known so they helped push me and motivate me to practice every day, literally rain or shine.”
In his first year as a freshman, Ruiz was named MVP of the team – this impressively coming roughly 6-8 months after initially picking up a club. His prep career caught the eyes of a few community colleges in the area, but his goal all along was to compete at one of the most prestigious golf schools – Arizona State.
Ruiz applied and was accepted, but there was only one scholarship remaining on the Sun Devil team. Ultimately, he did not make it to Glendale, and instead, another talented golfer 10 months younger than Ruiz took his spot on the team. His name is Jon Rahm, now the fifth-ranked golfer on the World Golf Rankings.
Ruiz then enrolled at Ventura College just 20 minutes away from his home, but after a week decided college just wasn’t for him. It’s an abnormality for golfers of this generation not to begin golfing in college, and Ruiz admitted he essentially bet on himself with no education plan to fall back on if things didn’t work out.
“My old coach said, ‘If you want to become a pro golfer, are you going to get better going to a community for two years and then a university for two years, or are you going to get better just practicing and focusing on golf?’ I took that into consideration and just focused on golf, then turned pro when I was 20.”
Now on his own with no funding coming from a university, the Cali native struggled at first. He immediately joined the Mackenzie Tour Q-School and gained conditional status, though, for six tournaments in 2015. But his first taste of professional golf was a wreck, to the point where after missing four-straight cuts, Ruiz packed it in and returned home without playing the final two guaranteed events.
It was a reality check, like “a slap in the face” as Ruiz put it, but not to the point where he ever let ideas of abandoning the sport enter his mind. Ruiz knew he could compete at a high level – he just needed to right people around him to grow as a player, both physically and mentally. This led to the hiring of renown swing coach George Gankas, who is quite the attraction with over 75,000 followers on Instagram. Ruiz says without that guidance, his mechanics wouldn’t be where they are today.
“He helped me rebuild my swing and do things mentally that would help,” Ruiz said. “I started going to a trainer and learned what guys on the Tour were doing and tried to get better in every aspect of the game. My tendencies were pretty bad and I had a big hook, so the swing change was big for me.”
After playing local tournaments in 2016, Ruiz returned to the Mackenzie Tour this year and saw his hard work come to fruition.
The 23-year-old produced top 30 finishes in his first five starts, including one runner-up, then one month later emerged victorious at the Staal Foundation Open in July. There’s nothing quite like that first victory feeling, and Ruiz cashed in just years after he was the scared, nervous kid trying to make a living north of the border.
— Staal Open (@StaalOpen) July 17, 2017
“It was such a relief,” he said of the win. “I was three back going into Sunday and I like being behind like that. It’s nice knowing you have to go out and shoot a number. Going into the final round, George told me he talked to a psychic and he said I was going to win. I was literally telling myself all day, ‘You’re going to win.’”
“I called him after I won he was like, ‘Oh, I was just joking.’”
Ruiz knew he needed a birdie at the par 5, 18th hole to have a chance, at the very least, to enter a playoff with leader Kramer Hickock who trailed him on the course. It’s a lengthy par 5 playing around 590 yards, so Ruiz needed to crush two shots to reach the green in two. With adrenaline as his friend, he hit a good drive then with 287 yards to the pin, Ruiz blasted a 3-wood to find the surface. From there, it was simple two-putt to sign for 13-under.
“I couldn’t even watch Kramer putt on the last hole,” Ruiz said. “Then when my caddie David came running over towards me at the putting green I knew I had won.”
On top of the prize money that came with the biggest win of his career, Ruiz also locked up a spot in the RBC Canadian Open, the annual PGA Tour event held in Canada. This was his chance to showcase his talent to a larger audience, and even on the big stage in his debut made an early impact. Ruiz fired an opening-round 67 which placed him two shots back of the Day 1 leaders, and despite eventually missing the cut following a second-round 74, it solidified his confidence knowing he can compete with elite players.
“George always told me he would caddie for my first PGA Tour event, so having him on the bag was huge,” he said. “For the guys on the Mackenzie Tour, we know we can compete with PGA Tour players; it’s just getting there that’s the hard part. The first round was huge for me. It was great for my confidence and I knew once I got out there, I could shoot that number and compete with them.”
A breakthrough deserves celebration, and Ruiz is certainly proud of his accomplishments. But like all golfers, he has a progressive mindset – thinking ahead to the next rung in the tour ladder.
A year from now Ruiz will likely return to the same lake house and relish identical views with loved ones. Maybe then he’ll take a moment to deliberate, potentially with visions of a full-time PGA Tour atmosphere unfolding if the 2018 Web.com Tour goes his way.