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Saunders enters New Mexico Open as defending champion

Sam Saunders, left. who won the New Mexico Open last year, is congratulated by Jeff Burton after winning the playoff. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The conversation comes up every once in a while, usually when the talk about how sometimes life as a young professional can be such a struggle when waiting for the next payday.

Why would Sam Saunders want that life of what sometimes, a lot of times, can mount to desperation?

What would he do if there wasn’t golf?

The former University of New Mexico golfer earned an undergraduate degree in finance.

“I could be sitting behind a desk crunching numbers,” Saunders said during a media luncheon for the 66th annual New Mexico Open at Paradise Hills Golf Course on Friday. “I’d much rather play golf.”

Saunders prefers the conversation about his current state of golf. He is on a hot streak as he enters the New Mexico Open as the defending champion. The three-day tournament starts on Tuesday.

He won the Utah Open in a two-hole playoff against Kelton Hirsch at Riverside Country Club in Provo on Aug. 18. Saunders gained even more confidence with the victory in a playoff that brought him $20,000 for the win. He won the New Mexico Open in a playoff last year at Sandia Golf Club.

The following week after the Utah Open, Saunders finished in a three-way tie for second and took home $5,000 after a sensational round of 11-under 60 in the final round of the Rocky Mountain Open at Tiara Rado Golf Course in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Saunders finished four strokes behind the champion Ben Corfee.

That finish added to a summer that included the top highlight of winning the CoBank Colorado Open in July and the $100,000 first-place prize money.

He had lost in a playoff at the Colorado Open in 2018.

“It’s been a good run,” Saunders said “Then I got two weeks off. It was nice. I had played three weeks in a row. I went to Las Vegas with my girlfriend. I just got away for a little bit and sort of recharged.”

Saunders is in a good place right now, he said, because he does his best to separate himself from golf when he’s not on the course. He has been working with a sports psychologist, who has helped remind him not bring his job home with him, he said.

During the New Mexico Open, he plans to be all about golf.

THE FIELD: Notah Begay III, a four-time PGA Tour winner and a local legend, will play in the New Mexico Open. He is scheduled to tee off in the last group at 2:10 p.m. on No. 10. He won the New Mexico Open in 1998.

The field also includes former UNM standout and local prep standout Sean Carlon, who turned pro early in the summer.

Carlon is very familiar with the course, as he lives within five minutes of the course that was once called Desert Greens.

“When we were kids we would play 36 holes here like every day in the summers,” Carlon said. “It feels like home. I was really excited to find out that the New Mexico Open was going to be here.”

Carlon said he is playing better now after dealing with a wrist injury that proved challenging during his first summer as a pro.

He made it throug pre-qualifying for Korn Ferry Q School Aug. 30 in Lantana, Texas. Carlon said he will find out soon about his next asssignment for the first stage.

This will be Carlon’s first New Mexico Open as a pro. He’s played in it twice as an amateur, including last year.

The New Mexico Open will feature a full field of 156 golfers that will be vying for a purse of $85,000 and a first-place check of $14,000.

The Paradise Hills Golf Course will have a few changes for the event, said Dana Lehner, Sun Country PGA executive director and New Mexico Open tournament director. Hole Nos. 2 and 8 will now be par-4s instead of par-5s. Also, the fairways have been narrowed more than before.

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