For the past few years, there’s been one particular end-of-season memory that has stuck with Megha Ganne. It’s the exclamation point on the AJGA competition calendar: the Rolex Tournament of Champions. The co-ed season ender includes a rite of passage for the top male and female junior players in the country. Each gets the floor at the season-ending banquet to give the player-of-the-year speech.
Ganne listened to Yealimi Noh, the now 20-year-old LPGA player with a Solheim Cup appearance under her belt, give it in 2018. Future Stanford teammates Rachel Heck (2017) and Rose Zhang did it (2019, 2020), too. Now the torch is passed to Ganne, who will duck stand-and-deliver duties this year because of lingering COVID-19 regulations forcing the banquet to remain virtual, but the point is the same.
“Honestly they’re all really moving to show how hard they worked over the years,” Ganne said of listening to those speeches.
The Rolex Player of the Year Award has a long, distinguished history of past champions, including Ariya Jutanugarn, Paula Creamer and Inbee Park on the women’s side and Jordan Spieth, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on the men’s side.
“It’s the biggest honor you can get playing junior golf events and AJGAs,” Ganne said. “It’s a great goal to keep in mind through those winters and practice sessions and to be considered for the award and receive it, it’s the best feeling.”
Megha Ganne reacts to a putt on the sixth hole with her caddie Michael Finn during the third round at the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, California, on Saturday, June 5, 2021. (Photo by Kathryn Riley/USGA)
Ganne, of Holmdel, New Jersey, ended 2021 with appearances on four national teams (the Met Golf Association’s Carey Cup, the Junior Ryder Cup, the Junior Solheim Cup, and as a non-playing alternate on the Curtis Cup), a feat unheard of for a 17-year-old. Then again, Ganne did a lot of things unheard of for a player her age over the past year. Contending at the U.S. Women’s Open in June, where she ultimately finished T-14 (and as the low amateur) is at the top of that list.
One thing still on the bucket list? Win an AJGA invitational – the series of tournaments that feature the organizations’ deepest fields.
“I’m very good at coming in top 3 but not quite winning them,” Ganne joked, referencing top-3 finishes at the AJGA Girls Championship, Rolex Tournament of Champions, and twice at the ANNIKA Invitational, “so I’d like to do that. Hopefully at (the Rolex Tournament of Champions) or maybe I’ll play another one early next year.”
For all Ganne accomplished in 2021, two learning curves stood out specifically. One was to cherish the parts of amateur and junior golf – like the team competitions – where she was able to cultivate friendships. It has her looking forward to a college career at Stanford that will begin in 2022.
The other? Don’t expect to play as well as you can every time you tee it up.
“It’s just really hard to play your best in every single event, even if you feel like you have to because it’s this event or that event,” she said. “You can’t expect yourself to bring your absolute A-game each time and that’s completely normal and something I have to get used to. Because it can be really hard when you want to play well in a certain event and you don’t.”
Nicholas Dunlap knows that battle, too – though he came out on the right side of many of his big goals in 2021. Dunlap set out to win both the U.S. Junior Amateur and the Rolex Player of the Year Award, and he checked both boxes.
“It’s unreal to have my name on a trophy like that, on an award like that,” he said. “It never goes away and that feeling is never going to go away.”
Dunlap, of Huntsville, Alabama, spent a brief amount of time early in the year deciding whether he wanted to begin transitioning to more amateur events or continue to compete in junior events. Setting those specific goals helped convince him to keep teeing it up in junior ones. He felt he needed to learn to win at the first level before moving on to the next.
“I didn’t really feel like I accomplished what I wanted to in junior golf,” he said.
Each tournament week was preparation for winning the U.S. Junior, a grueling week of two rounds of stroke play followed by six rounds of match play if you’re going to cart off a trophy, as Dunlap did. Leading up to that event, he won the Dustin Johnson World Junior and the Polo Golf Association Junior Classic.
Nicholas Dunlap and the trophy after winning during the final match at the 2021 U.S. Junior at The Country Club of North in Village of Pinehurst, N.C. on Saturday, July 24, 2021. (Chris Keane/USGA)
“Every time you win, it doesn’t matter if it’s the club championship or if it’s your little local tournament or if it’s one of the biggest tournaments in the world,” he said. “It helps your confidence because tournament golf is hard. It’s hard to compete and it’s hard to win. So any time something like that happens, it makes you feel good about yourself and gives you a little bit of confidence.”
It would be the ultimate boost of confidence to have his name on both the U.S. Junior and U.S. Amateur trophy at once. He’s already checked the first box, so why not check the second in 2022?
“I think it’s something that not many people can say they’ve done, I, fortunately, have the chance to do that.”
Wise words from the nation’s top juniors.