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Saunders rallies, wins City

He’s been a runner-up many times over.

Now Sam Saunders’ cup runneth over.

The rising University of New Mexico senior golfer made up eight shots on second-round leader Nick Geyer for a dramatic one-stroke victory in the 73rd Albuquerque Men’s City Amateur Golf Championship on Sunday at Los Altos.

He is the first to win the new trophy cup that was added to the long history of this event. He also completed the first brother act of title winners. Older brother Steve Saunders  won in 2006.

“It feels great,” Sam Saunders said. “Winning last week definitely helped me in the stretch (Sunday). I wasn’t just telling myself that I was capable of winning. I was telling myself I would win.”

Last week, Saunders won the New Mexico-West Texas Amateur after being runner-up the past two years. He had finished second in Men’s City two of the past three years, but had never won it.

Saunders closed with a 6-under-66 to finish at 14-under 202. Geyer shot 74 on Sunday and ended up at 13 under while James Lee was third at 10 under. Sean Carlon was 9 under, three-time champion Tim With was 8 under, Justin Knauber 7 under and Ethan Fine 6 under.

“It wasn’t part of the script to make it this exciting,” Geyer said. “But playing with the lead, a big lead, I hadn’t done that in years, and it was different than I thought it would be. I still really had fun, but a 74 just isn’t going to get it done.”

Saunders chipped away at Geyer’s massive lead the entire final round and finally grabbed it on the par-4 17th hole, when his 12-foot birdie putt hung on the lip, then fell.

Both Geyer and Saunders 2-putted for par on 18.

Geyer came into the final round of the 54-hole event with a fat seven-shot lead and was on pace to possibly set a new tournament record — owned by two-time defending champion Patrick Beyhan, who had it at 23 under last year.

It became apparent early that Beyhan’s record would easily stand, though Geyer’s lead still looked solid when he made par on his first six holes. Saunders had just picked up two shots with a pair of birdies and With — also playing in the final group and also at 8-under entering the day — had given two shots back and was only 6 under after 7.

Then everything changed. Geyer made bogey at No. 7, and Saunders had a 25-foot chip-in for eagle on the par-5 8th to get to 12 under.

Geyer made birdie on the hole to get back to 15 under, but he bogeyed No. 9.

In the meantime, Lee, an Albuquerque Academy graduate and rising junior at Rice, was blazing. Playing one group in front of the final threesome, Lee birdied five of his first eight holes to get to 10 under and move into contention.

“I knew, starting the day, I was really far back (10 shots),” Lee said. “I had to play aggressively, and luckily everything was going my way on the front. If I could have continued playing well, I might have had a shot.”

Lee finished with a 67.

Geyer continued to stumble on the back side, but caught a break on a drive he appeared to hit out of bounds on 10. The ball hit a tree, and he saved par. But he had to take an unplayable that led to a bogey at 12, and his lead was down to one over Saunders.

The two then faced off in what, at times, truly looked like an old-fashioned duel.

After both had 2-putt birdies on the par-5 14th, they hit their shots to the par-3 15th almost to the same spot on the green, about 40 feet right of the hole. Saunders crouched down to read the line from left of the cup and Geyer crouched down from the right. It looked like they were staring each other down while they read the line of their putts.

Both left tap-ins for par, and it was on to the par-5 16th, where it looked like Saunders finally would go in front.

The affable Geyer hit his second shot in the left bunker next to the green, and the ball pressed against the lip.

He had no shot at the green and asked for a ruling from Los Altos director of golf Chris Moya to see if he could get a free drop.

He couldn’t.

“I wouldn’t have given it to you either,” Geyer, the director of rules and tournament competition for the Sun Country Golf Association, told Moya with a laugh. “But hey, I had to ask.”

Geyer then made a brilliant shot, hitting the ball backwards into the fairway, and hit an even better chip from about 100 feet out that nestled next to the cup to save par. He kept his share of the lead when Saunders lipped out on an 8-foot birdie putt.

Then came 17.

“I hit so many good putts on the day, and they just weren’t falling in,” Saunders said. “Finally, on 17, one fell in. My adrenaline was pumping pretty hard after that. It just feels so much better than finishing second again.”