Mattapoisett’s Willow Ruel is only 11 years old, but in just a few weeks, she will live out every golfer’s dream.

On Sunday, April 3, the Old Hammondtown School fifth grader will step onto the vaunted grass of Augusta National to compete in the 2022 Masters Drive, Chip and Putt tournament. It will also be broadcast on ESPN.

“I can’t really process it. I’m excited,” Willow said.

She’s been working on her putting and chipping heading into the competition, and was fitted for a new driver at Titleist, and has consistently added about 15-20 yards to her drive.

Willow Ruel’s Journey to the Masters

In order to make it to the national competition, Willow won the local qualifier last July at her home course, the Bay Club in Mattapoisett. From there, she won the sub-regional qualifier at LeBaron Hills in Lakeville last August, and then the regional qualifier at TPC Highlands in Cromwell, Connecticut last September.

Willow had previously made it to the sub-regional round in 2017 and 2018 and the regional qualifier in 2019.

“We told her if she won at sub-regionals, she could get a puppy,” her mother Jennifer Risio said, noting that they now have that puppy, named Missy Elliott.

Mattapoisett's Willow Ruel competing in the regionals of the Drive, Chip and Putt challenge
Courtesy Jennifer Risio

As Willow made it to the regionals for the second year in a row, Risio said she was a nervous wreck watching her daughter compete but that Willow herself was calm and cool under the pressure.

“She took a deep breath, looked over at me and how nervous I was, and said, ‘Mom, I’ve got this. Just breathe,’” Risio said. “She went out there and nailed her chips and her putts, and she won by one point.”

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“I feel like if you don’t take it too seriously, it’s going to end up going good,” Willow said. “Just have fun. You have to be (somewhat) serious about it, but if you make sure you’re having fun, it will always work out.”

Mattapoisett's Willow Ruel competing in the regionals of the Drive, Chip and Putt challenge
Courtesy Jennifer Risio

Willow Ruel Has Almost Always Had a Club in Her Hand, But That's Not All

“I just started playing golf for fun,” Willow said. “I didn’t mean to do any of this. I would just sign up for random little tournaments and play in them just for fun.”

She ended up joining the PGA Junior Team at the Bay Club, where she is one of the best players on the team and the only girl. Yet for a sport that she has had so much success in, she doesn’t just specialize in it like many other young golfers.

Willow started playing golf when she was three years old, but plays a number of other sports, too.

“She’s always been an athletic kid since she came out of the chute – yoga since age two, hockey since age four, soccer and science since age five, and she’s amazing at all of it,” Risio said. “Whatever she does, she does well.”

Mattapoisett's Willow Ruel competing in the regionals of the Drive, Chip and Putt challenge
Courtesy Jennifer Risio

Willow Ruel’s Athletic Genes and Intrinsic Intensity

Risio was a runner, and her husband Jon is an avid golfer and former semi-pro hockey player, so Willow has good athletic genes on her side, but it’s something else within her that has led to her success.

“You’ve got a girl that no matter what she does, who she meets, she has this innate tenacity,” Risio said. “She picks up something and wants to learn how to do it, do it correctly and be the best at it.”

A story from her favorite sport, hockey – Willow wants to be a professional hockey player someday – best exemplifies that tenacity.

She wanted to play on a competitive travel hockey team, but had never played hockey at that level before. She tried out for a team, but didn’t make it. Risio said Willow didn’t get upset about it, but rather just asked the coach what she needed to do to make the team.

“He told her, another year of practice, working on her skating, her stick handling. He said, ‘See me in a year and try out again,’ but she didn’t want to take that for an answer,” Risio said. “She asked if she could still practice with the team, to do exactly what they do and learn to get better that way.”

Four days a week for three months, Willow laced up her skates and worked on skills and practiced with the team, and that combined with a stint at hockey camp last summer allowed her to improve to where she not only made the team this year, but made it to tier 2.

“It was amazing,” Risio said. “That’s the kind of tenacity I’m talking about.”

Willow said that hockey brings her a lot of skills that she can translate into her other passions, including golf.

“It’s fast. It’s a team sport, it’s competitive, really competitive. You do so much with it,” she said. “In golf, my slap shot from hockey helps my hitting my driver further, because you need a lot of power to put the puck in the net, so it makes you hit the ball farther in golf.”

Mattapoisett's Willow Ruel competing in the regionals of the Drive, Chip and Putt challenge
Courtesy Jennifer Risio

Willow Ruel Is Ready to Master Augusta National

In a few weeks, when Willow gets to visit Augusta, her whole family is going out to support her. All of the kids taking part in the challenge and their families will be greeted at the event by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and with the Masters Tournament happening the week after this event, many of the pros will be hanging around to practice and will likely watch the kids’ tournament.

“Meeting the pros is probably what I’m most looking forward to,” Willow said. “Rory (McIlroy) is my favorite.”

As much as Willow may be going down to Georgia with the intention of winnnig it all, she said she definitely plans on absorbing everything around her so that even if she doesn’t win, it will always be a positive memory for her. Her mom agreed with that outlook.

“All the kids going to Augusta, they’ve already won in my mind,” Risio said. “But if she can put her head down and win – holy moly.”

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