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Saunders Takes Shot at Mini-Tour Event

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Ex-Lobo goes after big money at Paa-Ko Ridge

Pop quiz time.

Can you name the richest golf tournament in New Mexico?

Farmington’s San Juan Open, you say?

National Pro Golf
Paa-Ko Ridge
Tee times: 7:30-9:30 a.m., 11:45 a.m.-1:15 p.m.


Santa Ana Golf Club’s New Mexico Open?


No, the biggest purse in the state this year is for a tournament few folks had even heard about until last week – the National Professional Golf Tour Regional Major. The event takes place at Paa-Ko Ridge Golf Club Wednesday through Saturday.

Paa-Ko head pro Bob Basham says the event wasn’t finalized until May, and just started to publicize it last Friday. But while few golf fans in the area know what’s happening in the East Mountains, those in the $125,000 event certainly do.

“It’s a big purse, a big first prize and it’s going to draw a lot of really good players from around the country,” says Albuquerque touring pro Steve Saunders. “I’m really excited to compete against a field like this.”

Saunders is one of just a handful of local players in the 132-player field. Former Albuquerque Academy and Pepperdine standout Jesse Barnsley and former University of New Mexico golfer Wil Collins are also playing. Last week, tournament director Sean Steele said it was possible a couple more New Mexicans could enter.

The event is presented by Arnold Palmer Golf Management, and is the final of eight regional majors. The National Professional Golf Tour concludes with its $1 million championship event in Tucson in early November.

“Our main objective is to provide young professional golfers with a better opportunity to develop their game as they work towards their ultimate goal,” says Larry Lunsford, executive director of the NPGT, “but to also give them a chance to make some real money.”

Saunders is out to collect the $20,000 top prize.

“It’s a great event to help stay sharp and build momentum, and hopefully propel some confidence on the way to (PGA Tour Qualifying School),” said the 2005 La Cueva and 2009 UNM graduate. “It’s always awesome having a home event. You get to sleep in your bed, and play a course you’ve played a ton of times before.”

Saunders says his familiarity with the picturesque and challenging Paa-Ko course should help, “but I still have to play well. I did some good things last week, did some things well that I’ve been working on improving, but I just made a lot of stupid mistakes.”

Saunders finished tied for 43rd last week in the New Mexico Open at Santa Ana Golf Club, his first event back in the state since finishing up his second year on the Canadian Tour.

He had rounds of 74-66-72 for a 2-over total and finished 22 shots behind champion Tim Madigan.

Saunders’ younger brother, Sam, is a La Cueva graduate and a sophomore on the UNM golf team.

This is the third year of the NPGT, and Steele said he hopes this event returns to Paa-Ko next year. The mini-tour is similar to the Gateway and Adams tours, and is for player who have their sites set on trying to eventually get to the Nationwide and PGA tours.

Steele says his tour has a “solid five-year plan” and has grown in popularity.

Full-time members of the tour have to pony up $4,500 to join, and there are about 160 smaller local events throughout the country and 10 national events.

For those, like Saunders, who aren’t members of the NPGT, they can pay $1,500, which allows them to play in two events.

Tee times are 7:30-9:30 a.m., and 11:45 a.m.- 1:15 p.m. off both the No. 1 and No. 10 tees each of the first two rounds.

The field will be cut to the top 52 and ties after Thursday’s round, with tee times running from 7:30-10:30 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

There is no admission charge.
Saunders Taking a Shot at Mini-Tour Event

— This article appeared on page D6 of the Albuquerque Journal