A successful short putt for par on her 72nd and final hole Sunday ensured that 17-year-old Megha Ganne finished with the best score of all the amateurs competing at the U.S. Women’s Open — the biggest prize in all of women’s golf.
A week that saw her somehow take a share of the lead at Olympia Club in San Francisco after one round — and third place after 54 holes — ended with an even-par back 9 and a share of 14th place for the prestigious tournament.
“You guys are the best!” a beaming Ganne told the crowd as she walked off the course, undeterred by her rough six-over-par earlier on the front nine.
Ganne, a junior at Holmdel High School — located about 15 miles north of Monmouth Park racetrack “down the Shore” — had every reason to be proud.
But when I first heard of her remarkable 4-under-par 67 opening round, it occurred to me, as a a senior analyst at usbets.com, that it might be possible for me to make a legal bet on a literal Jersey Girl. That seemed weird.
Just to confirm after Thursday’s round that it was even unfortunately possible, I used BetMGM.com to make a token $1 bet on Ganne at 50/1 to win the event.
Yes, you can legally bet on teenagers
A spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office, which runs the state Division of Gaming Enforcement, explained the option:
“The golfing wager you reference is allowed under the Sports Wagering Act (N.J.S.A. 5:12A-10.) The Act permits wagering on ‘international sports events in which persons under age 18 make up a minority of the participants.’ As such, sports betting operators are permitted to offer wagering on the US Women’s Open (Golf) as an international sports event where the majority of competitors are 18 years of age or older.”
The same rule applies in any number of states.
Clarity is helpful — to a point.
The U.S. Women’s Open, like all national championships run by the U.S. Golf Association, is “open” in the sense that even amateurs like Ganne can vie for a place in the 156-player field.
Last month in nearby Spring Lake, Ganne claimed the second and final qualifying berth behind Cheyenne Woods — a 30-year-old professional golfer who is the niece of Tiger Woods and the boyfriend of Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks.
Ganne not nearly the youngest
Most of the U.S. Women’s Open field consists of adult professionals, but Ganne was not even the youngest participant.
That honor went to Chloe Kovelesky of Boca Raton, Fla., a 14-year-old who routinely drives a golf ball more than 270 yards. Kovelesky shot 81-81 and, like many amateurs who qualified, missed the 36-hole cut by more than a dozen strokes.
Just seven years ago, an 11-year-old named Lucy Li became the youngest participant in a U.S. Women’s Open.
Presumably Li, too, was available for betting in Nevada — at the time, the only U.S. state where gambling on the event was legal.
If there are concerns about betting on young competitors, the answer is not as simple as taking any competitor under age 21 “off the board.” The Open was won on Sunday by 19-year-old Yuka Saso, a Filipino teen who benefited from a back-nine collapse by American Lexi Thompson, whose own youth record in qualifying as a 12-year-old in 2007 was eclipsed by Li.
Saso is the second 19-year-old to win the event.
It’s understandable that the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement and its peers in other states are not eager to have to dig into the exact ages of every single qualifier in professional golf tournaments.
And a 19-year-old pro who just took home a $1 million paycheck presumably is fair game for wagering purposes.
But a 17-year-old amateur?
Awkward feeling around this bet
My $1 wager on Ganne left a bad taste in my mouth, until I caught up with her post-match interview following Round 1. Ganne, who has participated in countless junior events, said her goal is to “give back to the next generation.”
A charming sentiment, given that the next generation from hers has yet to be born. But it crystallized for me that if, by some miracle, Ganne would win $50 for me, I would donate it to the First Tee Jersey Shore charity that makes golf accessible to those who otherwise could not afford to play.
Then I recalled how, in the late 1990s when I covered the New Jersey Nets of the NBA, the team’s new owners said they would donate the profits from their franchise to charities for needy families in Newark.
It struck me right away: Should underprivileged kids nervously watch late-season Nets games, knowing that missing the playoffs might mean no new playground equipment?
However well intended the program, the reality was awkward, at best.
Donating the potential winnings
So I resolved on Friday to make that donation no matter how Ganne finished — and she finished admirably.
I still didn’t watch much of the U.S. Women’s Open over the weekend, finding it difficult to be reminded of my wager. But the highlight I caught of Ganne’s final hole was well worth watching.
Ganne was the “feel-good” story of the tournament, in fact — especially among youngsters.
“Every single small girl I saw out there I waved to, and I couldn’t help but smiling,” Ganne said. “They’re just so adorable, and it’s crazy to think that they’re like here for me and want to watch me play.”
But betting on an under-age athlete? That didn’t feel good at all.
State regulators might want to look into some sort of age limit — either 18, or 16.
But should any of us be allowed to wager legally on a sixth-grader, as Li was when competing seven years ago?
Photo by KelvinKuo/USA Today