When Thomas Ruli Jr. first played in the Louisiana Golf Association Junior Amateur Championship two years ago, he didn’t fare too well.
Not by his standards, at least.
“That first tournament, it was more for the experience of playing it,” Ruli said. “Last year, I actually thought I could win it.”
He came close with a 10th= place finish in 2012. And it’s that showing that has many believing the Mandeville resident is one of the golfers to beat when the tournament begins Wednesday at TPC Louisiana in Avondale. One hundred and forty of the state’s best amateurs, between the ages of 10 and 17, will take part in the annual LGA Junior Am Championship — the highest number of entries since 2002.
Sitting near the top of the pack is Ruli, a 17-year old incoming senior at St. Paul’s in Covington. But he has more than experience on his side.
Ruli plays scratch golf, made the Class 5A All-State team as a junior at St. Paul’s and finished in the Top 10 in the 5A prep championship a few months ago. So, he’s accustomed to the rigors a three-day, 54-hole event like the Junior Am will bring.
“I really, really like the course,” Ruli said. “I tend to play well there. I tend to read the greens well there. Four years ago when I played it, I shot a 75, which maybe is like the equivalent of me shooting a 63 today. It was just a great day for me.”
Playing on the same course where the PGA pros tee it up every spring in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans is not a distraction to Ruli or other top contenders, he said.
“When you first start (playing in events like this,) you’re nervous for that first tournament,” Ruli said. “It’s on a bigger stage. But once you get in and do it, you gain a lot of confidence. You believe you belong out there. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get with it….So I’m comfortable out there. I’m not wide-eyed thinking ‘This is the TPC. This is where the Zurich is played.’ It’s just like any other tournament. You have to make your shots and execute.”
Logan Ray, the LGA Director of Championship Operations, agreed. He said the course will be challenging, but not to the point to be intimidating — especially to the youngest members in the event.
“We’ll have it set up where it’s fair,” Ray said. “We want them to have a good time. But with that said, the person who wins will definitely be the best junior golfer in the state. It’s going to be a test for them. We won’t have it tipped out like we had it in the Amateur Championship (for adults) last year, but it’s tough.”
The tournament will be divided into four flights: a championship flight and three age-group flights (10-12, 13-14 and 15-17.) The age group flights will play 36 holes over the course Wednesday and Thursday. The championship flight will play 54 holes, ending with a final 18 on Friday. Ray said 96 of the 140 golfers in the field are entered in the championship group.
Last year’s champion, Sam Burns of Shreveport, will not participate in this year’s tournament. In his absence, Ruli and a handful of other golfers are considered the favorites.
That group includes Ryan Alford of Shreveport, who finished seventh in 2012; Jeff Berry of Shreveport, who placed 14th; and Blake Caldwell of Ponchatoula, who tied for fifth in 2011 at Zachary’s Beaver Creek Golf Club and followed with a tie for 16th at Links on the Bayou in Alexandria last year.
TPC Louisiana will play to a par of 72 and measure just more than 6,700 yards for the championship pairings. Play will begin at 7:30 a.m. each day.