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Teen golfer Garrett Sauls wins putting contest, turns down $5,000 prize to avoid risking amateur status

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How much is your high school athletic career worth?

That is the question an Anne Arundel County teenager had to decide last month after winning $5,000 in a putting contest at a charity golf outing.

However, before 15-year-old Garrett Sauls, a freshman at South River High School, could think about a spending spree — perhaps a new putter, some wedges and new tennis shoes — his father realized that accepting the money might present a problem.

Taking the money, Rob Sauls said, might affect his son’s amateur status and his high school and collegiate eligibility.

“The funnest times of your high school career are playing high school sports, at least it was for me,” said Rob Sauls, a 1977 graduate of Annapolis High who played lacrosse there and at Anne Arundel Community College. “I didn’t want him to take the chance of not finishing his career playing high school golf. You can’t put a value on it. I don’t remember who was in my math class, but I remember who my other attackman was.”

Though there is no way to predict just how successful Garrett Sauls might be on the golf course, he said it would take at least $25,000 for him to give up high school golf or the chance to play Division I college golf.

Sauls won the putting contest at Lake Presidential Golf Club in Upper Marlboro on May 16 by successively making 15-, 25- and 35-foot putts at the turn.

This past fall, Sauls was one of the top golfers at South River, but he did not qualify for the state high school tournament and his average of nearly 48 strokes per nine holes is unlikely to land him a spot on a professional tour anytime soon. Still, the 5-foot-7, 130-pound teen has a goal of playing golf in college and does not want to affect those chances.

The NCAA allows Division I prospects to accept money to cover tournament expenses and entry fees. NCAA Division II and Division III potential athletes are able to accept prize money from events such as putting contests without affecting their eligibility.

The U.S. Golf Association, which oversees various amateur championships, is slightly more lenient, allowing contest winners to accept up to $750 in gift certificates and retain amateur status.

The most restrictive governing body in Sauls’s way would be the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, which oversees public school athletics in the state and says athletes are ineligible if they use their athletic ability for financial gain. For many golfers, though, playing for their schools is secondary to playing in junior tournaments around the region and the nation.

“I think, and [Garrett] is not going to agree, it’s a good life lesson,” Rob Sauls said. “He’ll have the opportunity to earn a lot of money if he goes on to play college golf or possibly play professionally.”

Of course, Sauls has heard the suggestion that he could just take the money or have it given to his father and worry later if one of the sanctioning bodies thought something improper had taken place.

“I was thinking [of taking it] because you wouldn’t really get in trouble unless you get caught,” said Garrett Sauls, who added that he has yet to be contacted by any college golf coaches. “It’s like in college football, those players, sometimes they get paid.

“If you know you’re not good enough, then you take the cash. I’m no superstar or anything, but it’s still in my mind that I have the possibility to play.”

It was not the first time a high schooler won the hospital tournament’s putting contest and declined the money. Hall Chaney said that in addition to passing up the putting contest money in 1999, he also passed up a new Ford Explorer for making a hole-in-one during another outing.

“I made the right decision at the time,” said Chaney, who was entering his sophomore year at Key School and later played one year of golf at the University of Delaware. “I was more worried about the NCAA. I had full intentions with going ahead and trying to play golf.”

After making the first two putts — stepping off the distance of each — Sauls spent more than one minute surveying the final shot as a small audience watched quietly from the side of the putting green, though no one offered advice for fear of breaking Sauls’s rhythm. Though he considers himself an average putter at best, Sauls said he was confident as he struck the ball.

“There was a little turtle shell in the middle so I had to go straight over top of that a little bit,” Sauls said. “And I had to maintain my breathing, my heart was beating pretty fast with that money on the back of your mind. You try not to count it up yet because you haven’t made the putt yet.”

© The Washington Post Company