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Old golf friends both on course

Former La Cueva golfers Steve Saunders, left, and Zach Fullerton met last week at Arroyo del Oso. In the 1990s, they led the Bears to three state titles before their lives became dramatically different. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Former La Cueva golfers Steve Saunders, left, and Zach Fullerton met last week at Arroyo del Oso. In the 1990s, they led the Bears to three state titles before their lives became dramatically different. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Bogotá, Colombia, couldn’t be a more fitting site.

An out of the country destination for an out of this world reunion.

Bogotá is a city of contrasts. A blend of English, Spanish and Indian.

Great wealth and mind-numbing slums. Futuristic architecture and old-school drug dealers.

Former La Cueva golfers Steve Saunders, right, and Zach Fullerton met last week at Arroyo del Oso. In the 1990s, they led the Bears to three state titles before their lives became dramatically different. (Courtesy of Marie Fullerton)

Former La Cueva golfers Steve Saunders, right, and Zach Fullerton met last week at Arroyo del Oso. In the 1990s, they led the Bears to three state titles before their lives became dramatically different. (Courtesy of Marie Fullerton)

And it is where two childhood chums and former La Cueva High School teammates – with paths as different as Bogotá itself – will reunite on the golf course for the first time in more than a decade.

“We haven’t played together since high school,” Steve Saunders says of he and Zach Fullerton. “Pretty much, we had no contact until (Web.com Tour) Q-School in December. But we’re planning to play a practice round in Colombia for sure.”

On Thursday, the two tee it up in the opening round of the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship, the season’s first tournament on the Web.com Tour. They planned to get in at least one practice round – and a lot of catching up – today and Wednesday.

Saunders and Fullerton began their paths to the tour at the same spot at the same age – Tanoan Country Club as 7-year-old tykes.

Their journey was very similar for 10 years. Then it splintered like an old wooden golf shaft being hammered against a sycamore.

One was a collegiate Academic All-American, the other a high-school dropout.

One pounded golf balls at some of the finest courses on the continent, the other pounded the bottle in the used 1999 Ford Explorer that became his home.

One cut his teeth on pro golf out of college, the other cut his wrists in hopes of ending a life he had thrown into the gutter.

“It says a lot about who Zach is deep down as a person,” Saunders, who turned 27 today, says of his childhood friend. “What he’s been able to get through is pretty impressive. He did a lot of wrong things, but was able to recover and get good opportunities. It’s awesome. I’m just so happy for him.”

As is Fullerton.

“I’m blessed,” says the gregarious 6-foot-3 Fullerton, who turned 27 last month. “God really does work in mysterious ways, and he put so many good people in my life. I’m not just grateful for this opportunity, it means the world to me, but I’m just grateful to be alive.”

On right, Saunders, in front, practices with Zach Fullerton on the La Cueva High golf team. (Courtesy of Debbie Saunders)

Saunders, in front, practices with Zach Fullerton on the La Cueva High golf team. (Courtesy of Debbie Saunders)

Paths diverge

In the mid-1990s, Saunders and Fullerton were golf prospects and best pals.

They started the junior golf circuit when they were 7, and quickly shined in the Sun Country Golf Association section.

As their abilities improved, so did their friendship.

“I always loved that kid, he had a great sense of humor,” Steve’s mom, Debbie Saunders says of young Zach. “He would spend the night at our house, Steve would spend the night at his and Marie (Fullerton, Zach’s mom) would take them to the golf course at Tanoan and they’d play for hours. They were very close.”

Saunders and Fullerton roomed together and played on the same junior teams in tournaments in Canada and Las Vegas, Nev. They eventually became teammates at La Cueva High school, where they helped the Bears continue their powerful tradition.

As freshmen, they led La Cueva to its third straight state title. The Bears made it five in a row – and three for three during the Saunders/Fullerton years – when they were juniors in 2004.

Individually, Saunders finished fourth as a freshman, sophomore and junior.

Fullerton finished sixth as a freshman, won the title as a sophomore and lost in a sudden death playoff to finish second as a junior in 2004.

As seniors, Saunders signed a scholarship to play for UNM the next fall and Fullerton did the same at New Mexico State.

Fullerton, however, never made it out of La Cueva.

“As a junior, Zach finished second in state, by a shot, and didn’t even practice. That’s how good he was,” says John Kienle, Fullerton’s swing coach since he was 11. “And then he just quit altogether.”

Fullerton says he fell into “a bad crowd.”

His grades fell as well. So did his life.

“I made some terrible choices,” he says. “It wasn’t a matter of getting bad breaks, I brought it all on myself. I became a piece of crap.”

He says he started “smoking a lot of weed” and drinking on a nightly basis with some friends from high school. He dropped out of school three months shy of graduation and smacked his promising golf career completely off the course.

Saunders, meanwhile, continued to excel in the classroom and on the links. He won the state individual title as a senior and graduated with a 3.5 grade point average.

That success continued at UNM, where Saunders had a cumulative 3.4 grade point average, won three individual tournament titles – including the Mountain West Conference crown as a senior – was named the 2009 MWC player of the year, third-team All-America and Academic All-America.

Fullerton?

Basically, first-team all-skid row.

“I literally wanted to die,” he says, after a deep breath. “I was drunk every night and, at one point, living out of my car for about five months. It was rock bottom.”

Still here

Jack and Marie Fullerton have always been “as God-fearing, straight-laced churchgoers as you can get,” says Jack, who owns Zia Management, which manages commercial properties in town.

Below, Fullerton, age 3, at the Tanoan driving range. (Courtesy of Jack Fullerton)

Fullerton, age 3, at the Tanoan driving range. (Courtesy of Jack Fullerton)

One Sunday at Albuquerque’s Hoffmantown Church in 1987, a woman they knew told them her 15-year-old daughter, who lived in Gallup, had a 3-month-old baby and wanted to put him up for adoption. The Fullertons immediately started the legal process, and three months later Zach became family.

“I’ve never met my biological mother,” Zach says. “But I’d really like to someday so I can thank her for doing the right thing. My parents are the greatest. Somehow, they were able to stay strong through all the garbage and sheer disappointment I put them through.”

They also were strong through Zach’s childhood, when he says he needed 42 operations for a rare throat disease in which polyps clog the air passage and can choke a kid to death.

“It was just something we had to deal with,” Marie says. “It was hard, but just something we had to do to keep him alive. Luckily, he outgrew it.”

That pain, however, wasn’t nearly as much as Zach caused Jack and Marie years later. Fullerton says his parents never abandoned him. But “at the end of the day, my poor choices caused them so much hurt – so much pain. They still loved me, but they weren’t going to be enabling it. I felt like I didn’t want to live by their rules, so I left. But I had no place to go.”

Sometimes, he found a friend’s couch for a night.

If he was fortunate, a shower and a meal.

The one thing he never had trouble finding was a bottle.

“Hell,” he says, “it was pure hell.”

On at least one occasion, Fullerton was ready to end the lifestyle.

And his life.

“I can’t even remember when exactly it was. All the drinking blurs my memories from that period. I was so messed up, everything kind of runs together,” he says.

Fullerton and his boozing buddies were partying in the wee hours and ended up on the front lawn of Jack and Marie’s Tanoan home.

“We had a bunch of beer and a bottle of something,” he recalls. “My dad woke up and came out, and ends up taking the bottle away. I got upset, and kind of pushed him, and we almost got in a fight.”

“Thankfully,” blows weren’t exchanged, Zach says.

But the remorse was unbearable.

“I just started walking, and I felt so ashamed,” he says. “I walked by La Cueva, and there was a piece of glass there, and I thought, ‘what a piece of crap I am doing that to my father. For dropping out of school and giving up all these wonderful opportunities I had.'”

And the piece of glass?

“You know what,” he says after a long pause when asked if he sliced his wrists. “Uh,” and another pause. “I did. I just wanted it all to be over with. To be honest, I did. I cut myself pretty bad.”

He says he didn’t go to the hospital because “I didn’t want to tell anybody. Once I sobered back up, I knew it was going to be bad. So I found some stuff and taped myself back up. Fortunately, I’m still here today.”

Teeing it up

While Saunders was in the midst of his stellar collegiate career, Fullerton continued to flounder. He did earn his high school diploma in 2006 – a year after his La Cueva classmates graduated – through the Albuquerque Credit Recovery program, in which he took classes in portable buildings for about six months at Del Norte High. He got a job as an electrician with his brother, and rented a room from him for some time before getting his own apartment.

But the boozing and partying continued, and golf was in the distant rearview mirror.

“We had only to walk out into the garage and see his cast-off golf clubs gathering dust to feel waves of emotional pain sweep over us,” Marie says. “Reminders of how much he had thrown away were devastating for us, and the pain never seemed to ease.

Zach Fullerton with his girlfriend, Celeste Curry, left. He credits Curry for helping him out of skid-row existence that nearly ended his life. (Courtesy of Jack and Marie Fullerton)

Zach Fullerton with his girlfriend, Celeste Curry. He credits Curry for helping him out of skid-row existence that nearly ended his life. (Courtesy of Jack and Marie Fullerton)

About that time, Zach’s girlfriend, Celeste Curry, had had enough.

Curry, four years younger than Fullerton but a lifetime more mature, was a standout athlete and student at Eldorado High. She graduated in the fall of 2008, a semester earlier than her classmates.

“It was hard to watch somebody with so much potential go through such a rough period,” says the 23-year-old Curry, who has been with Fullerton since she was 15. “He was so sweet and gentleman-like, but he got in with the wrong crowd. I didn’t want to associate myself with that. I told him, ‘You can choose your friends, or me. I don’t want you being around guys who aren’t supportive of your life.’ ”

Fullerton says, “That woke me up. I didn’t want to lose her. She has been a rock through all of this.”

He enrolled in CNM in 2008, but still seldom picked up the clubs.

Saunders, meanwhile, was heading down the stretch of his stellar UNM career.

After graduating in 2009, the obvious next step was turning pro.

He gave PGA Tour Qualifying-School a shot that year, but came up short and played on the Canadian Tour (now PGA Tour Canada) and various other pro events during the past four years.

“The competition was just so good out there,” says Saunders, whose uncles Jeff Fulwiler and Jack Saunders were UNM golfers and whose father, Dave, played at New Mexico State. Steve’s brother, Sam Saunders, currently plays for the Lobos.

“I still had a lot of work to do with my game. I played in Canada the last four summers, and it’s been really valuable. That tour does everything you need to prepare you for the next level.”

Which he has now made – to the surprise of nobody.

“Steve’s always been such a polite and even-tempered person, and I think that has really helped him in golf,” says Dave, who played college golf from 1977-81 and now owns GolfMart.” But he’s very intense through whatever he does. From the very beginning, he always said he wanted to play Tiger Woods. I never wanted to encourage that, I knew how hard it was to have the goals he made. But he’s been on a mission to play with the best, and be the best in the profession.”

While Saunders honed his professional skills the past four years, Fullerton worked on his life skills. He started partying a tad less and playing a tad more golf.

One day, he teed it up at Tanoan with his father and Albuquerque custom knife maker Tom Black, a friend of Jack’s.

Zach hadn’t played in a year. Then shot 66.

After the round, without the Fullertons’ knowledge, Black lobbed a phone call to his nephew, James Ross Black – the longtime coach at Hobbs’ New Mexico Junior College.

James Black had recruited Fullerton out of high school, “but I knew I didn’t have a chance because he’d be going Division I. I knew how talented he was, and Tommy said he was trying to turn his life around, so I called Jack. He and Marie were on the course looking at sunset. It was within three weeks of school starting in fall of 2008. Zach came for a visit, committed himself, got into it and hasn’t looked back since.”

Zach says James Black “changed my life. He literally saved my life. Going to Hobbs, that got me away from a really bad crowd. He was one of many amazing people who came into my life.”

Black chokes up when he talks about Fullerton.

“His is a phenomenal story,” Black says, his voice cracking. “I’ve never had a Zach before. As a coach, you try to mold kids’ lives, and it brings tears to my eyes just talking about him.

“I gave him direction, but he did all the work. He has a good support group, great parents and a great girlfriend. I’m so proud of him.”

Tour of life

As a freshman, Fullerton had seven top-five finishes and won three tournaments for NMJC. He finished fourth in the national championship and was a first-team All-American. He won two more tournaments as a sophomore and was a second-team All-American. He also had a two-year GPA of 3.5.

Enter then-New Mexico State coach Scott Liberwirth. Again.

“I was just going through some results on Golfstat, and I saw his name pop up,” says Liberwirth, now the coach at UTEP. “It surprised me, because I never knew what happened to him. At that time, I started getting in touch. I said if he proved to me the bad stuff was behind him, I was willing to give him another chance.”

Fullerton made the most of it. In two years at NMSU he had eight top-20 finishes and won two tournaments. He set the school record for lowest ever round (62) and was second-team All-Western Athletic Conference as a senior.

With his playing eligibility over, Fullerton continued his education at NMSU in the Pro Golf Management School. He worked part-time in the pro shop at the university course to make ends meet, and girlfriend Curry continued her education at the school as well.

Then came another stroke of luck.

Ron Pattan, an army doctor and scratch golfer from El Paso, came to the NMSU Golf Course for a round last year while Fullerton was working. The two had met a couple of years earlier when Fullerton beat Pattan for the final qualifying spot in a U.S. Public Links qualifier.

“He told me he might be interested in sponsoring me if I turned pro,” Fullerton said.

Fullerton thought it was worth a shot.

Just seven months ago, he turned pro. Pattan sponsored Fullerton – helping him pay for expenses – and caddied for him through the pre-qualifying stage of Web.com Tour School in Nebraska City, Nebraska.

From there, Fullerton advanced through the first stage at Maricopa, Ariz., and the second stage in Kingwood, Texas. Then it was on to the grueling six round finals in La Quinta, where the top 45 of 152 players would make the Web.com Tour. Fullerton tied for 32nd. Fullerton is the only player in the past two years to make it through all four stages. Pattan was his caddy in all four stages.

“Had I not met Rod, I wouldn’t have been where I am,” Fullerton says.

Most players are exempt from the pre-qualifier and many more from the first stage because of past experience. Saunders was exempt from the pre-qualifier, but had to get though all three other levels.

He tied for first at a first stage event in Dallas, then returned to Dallas in November for the second stage and finished 16th, qualifying him for the final stage in December.

At the finals in La Quinta, he led for part of the event and wound up tied for third.

Saunders and Fullerton didn’t cross paths during the finals, which was held on two courses. They finally got together last week at Arroyo del Oso – site of many of their prep glory days – to have a photo taken for this story.

“It was so great to catch up again,” Saunders said. “We’ve had so many great stories from high school.”

Steve Saunders, above, was an All-American at UNM. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Steve Saunders, above, was an All-American at UNM. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal.)

Now he looks forward to many new stories, and his future looks rock-solid as he guns for a top-25 finish on the 2014 money list – which would give him a spot on next year’s PGA Tour.

“That’s the goal,” Saunders says. “I want to do it for myself, but also for my family. I owe them everything. My mom always took me to play and my dad, obviously, played a huge role. It’s been a lot of fun getting to this point, and I’m super excited. I’ve had some very fortunate doors open in my life.”

For Fullerton, the goal is the same.

For the most part.

Because of his finals finish, he is only guaranteed to play in eight events while Saunders is locked into 12 (having finished top 10). And Fullerton will miss one tournament while taking exams at New Mexico State. He says he will have his degree next year.

Nobody who knows Saunders doubts the one-time collegiate All-American will someday make a living on the PGA Tour.

Nobody who knows Fullerton doubts he has the ability to do the same.

But if that doesn’t happen, he says it truly doesn’t matter.

“I’m so freakin’ excited about the success that could come,” Fullerton says. “So many times, I look back now and I’m just glad I’m alive and not in jail. But even with all that could happen in golf, it really doesn’t matter. Everything from now on in life is a bonus – an absolute bonus.”

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