He had played the game since he was a child. And he excelled at it.
But Sam Saunders knew there was more to life than swinging a golf club.
So after his sophomore season on the University of New Mexico golf team, he put away the sticks, picked up his guitar and snowboard, buried himself in school books and changed his lifestyle.
“I just got burned out,” said Saunders, the 2009 individual large-school state high school golf champion as a junior at La Cueva. “I got tired of playing golf. I didn’t see my game improving, and my attitude was mostly just bad. I just needed a break from it.”
In 2012, he took one.
And after a year off from college golf, Saunders returned with a new hunger. His game has improved dramatically, and he heads into his senior season as one of the Lobos’ top players.
Saunders, along with UNM teammates Victor Perez, Andrej Bevins and two-time defending champion Gavin Green are among the favorites when the 60th annual William H. Tucker Intercollegiate begins Friday at the UNM Championship Golf Course.
“It was unfortunate that our team would be without him in the lineup, but Sam needed a break to work on his game and focus on school,” said Lobos coach Glen Millican.
“… I understood his decision at the time, but knew he had great golf ahead of him and felt like we would still have plenty of success together after the break.”
The son of GolfMart owner and former New Mexico State golfer Dave Saunders, younger brother of former Lobo star golf Steve Saunders and nephew of former Lobo golfers Jack Saunders and Jeff Fulwiler, Sam grew up around the game.
He was a part of two state title teams at La Cueva and holds the school’s lowest-ever stroke average (71.1). As a UNM freshman in 2010-11, he played in seven tournaments.
He shaved nearly two strokes off his per-round average to 74.71 from his freshman to sophomore seasons, but he played in just five events in 2011-12. And despite finishing as high as third in one tournament, he was finished with college golf.
Instead, he went snowboarding, fly-fishing, played video games, hiked and got reacquainted with one of his other loves – his guitar.
“It’s one of my very favorite things to do,” said Saunders, who is a big fan of the Dave Matthews Band. “Playing guitar is very relaxing.”
He played in a few noncollegiate golf tournaments the summer of 2012 and worked full time at GolfMart.
“It was kind of shocking when he quit,” said father Dave. “But then I realized, instead of being a pro golfer, he might become a golf professional. He was taking an interest in the business aspects. I figured, either way he can’t go wrong.”
Sam became more and more interested in the industry. But he still had a few swings left in him. In 2013, he again played in some summer events – and something clicked.
“I got the itch again,” he said. “I played great, and I realized why I had gotten into golf in the first place. It was fun again.”
After a successful summer, he called Millican and asked if he could return.
“The door was open from the instant he and I discussed his plan after year two,” Millican said.
“The break was really good for me,” Saunders said. “I got to do so many things I never could do when I was playing all the time. Quitting the team was the hardest decision I ever made. But everything worked out so well for me when I was gone that coming back was the second hardest decision. I was lucky that Glen was so understanding.”
Saunders played in 11 tournaments last season as a redshirt junior and lowered his stroke average to 73.31.
This summer, Saunders, 22, really sizzled. He won the New Mexico-West Texas Amateur and the Albuquerque Men’s City Amateur Championship, finished one shot back at the Canadian Amateur and was the fifth seed at the U.S. Public Links and made the round of 32 before losing to teammate Green. Last week, he was the low amateur at the New Mexico Open, and earlier this week finished 26th at the Husky Invitational in Bremerton, Wash., where the Lobos were sixth out of 15 teams.
“When he quit, I didn’t think that was the right idea,” said brother Steve, 27, who played on last year’s Web.com Tour. “On the other hand, I totally understand how frustrating it is to play golf poorly for an extended period of time. And I also didn’t understand his career aspirations at the time. But he took some time off and found his love for the game again, and he’s been playing great since.”
Sam, who received a degree in finance, is working on his master’s degree. He said, “Steve is a role model for me. He’s a great guy, is so nice to everyone and practices so hard. He’s a perfect guy to look up to.”
Chances are a lot of college players will be looking up at the name Sam Saunders on leader boards this season.
“His game continues to improve every day,” Millican said. “He carries himself like a professional and is positioned for a great senior season and career as a professional. I believe the sky is the limit for Sam. If he continues to believe in himself and work hard, he can beat anyone, anywhere, at anytime.”