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Saunders wins NM Open the hard way

Sam Saunders did it the hard way.

The Albuquerque native overcame a six-shot deficit and persevered through three playoff holes Thursday to earn the winner’s check at the Sandia Resort and Casino New Mexico Open.

Saunders holed out a short par putt on the 18th green at Sandia Golf Club to finally end what amounted to a 21-hole duel with Arizona’s Jeff Burton. Both players previously missed putts that would have ended the tournament; Saunders on the final hole of regulation and Burton on the first playoff hole.

“You don’t usually get a lot of second chances,” Saunders said. “I was fortunate to get one today and to take advantage of it. Being able to win here and have my name on the New Mexico Open trophy is really cool.”

Saunders collected $14,000 for the victory, while Burton took home $8,750 as runner-up. Albuquerque’s DJ Brigman shot a final-round 69 to finish third, three shots behind the leaders, and earned $7,000.

Five former New Mexico Open champions competed in the 2018 event, including Brigman and Albuquerque natives Wil Collins and Notah Begay III. Collins finished with a 4-under score of 212 (tied for 19th place), while Begay shot 76 on Thursday and ended up at 220 (tied for 47th).

Saunders, a La Cueva High School and University of New Mexico alum, shot a four-under 68 on Thursday to pull even with Burton. Both finished the three-round tournament with 13-under-par scores of 203 prior to the playoff.

A tie atop the leader board seemed unlikely entering the final round and even less plausible an hour later. Burton, who led after each of the first two rounds, held a four-shot advantage over Saunders entering Thursday’s play and extended it to six strokes when Saunders bogeyed the fourth and fifth holes.

But Burton was unable to keep his momentum. He shot an even-par 72 on Thursday while Saunders caught fire with six birdies over the final 12 holes. Saunders narrowly missed 10-foot eagle putt for the lead on the par-5 17th hole but tapped in for birdie to finally catch Burton.

Sam Saunders,left, is congratulated by 2nd place finisher Jeff Burton after winning New Mexico Open held at Sandia Golf Course. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

“I was playing from behind all day,” Saunders said. “I was hitting the ball so well but six shots is a lot to make up. I just had to keep grinding.”

Saunders had a birdie try from roughly 14 feet to win the tournament on the 18th hole after Burton’s approach carried off the back of the green. Saunders’ breaking putt rolled just past the left edge of the hole.

“I hit a good putt,” Saunders said, “just a little too hard.”

Burton had his chance to win on the same 18th green minutes later, but his 10-foot birdie try narrowly missed. Both players then birdied No. 17, the second playoff hole, before returning to No. 18. Burton left his approach shot short and right of the green and had to settle for bogey, ultimately allowing Saunders to tap in for the victory.

Burton was not available for comment following the round.

Thursday’s playoff win capped an outstanding summer for Saunders, who won the San Juan Open and finished second at the Colorado and Utah opens over the past three months. He plans to attend qualifying school for the PGA European Tour in October.

“Earlier this year I wasn’t even sure I’d be playing right now,” Saunders said. “I played terrible in 2017 and awful in 2018 until May. I changed swing coaches and fortunately things started turning around for me. Golf is fun again.”

Click here for final scores.