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Lobo golfer Sam Saunders came back to the game better than ever

Of course, you can go home again.

Especially if you never really left.

Two years ago, Sam Saunders was tired of life on the golf links.

It had been a very good life, for the most part. The 2010 La Cueva High graduate won a prep state individual golf title and was part of two team championships.

After two years in college, while things hadn’t gone as swimmingly as Saunders thought they should have at the University of New Mexico, he was still plenty young with what looked like a bright future ahead.

Or so many – other than Saunders – thought.

“I felt I really needed it to get back my perspective,” Saunders said. “I was sort of really fed up with golf, and I just wanted to go a different way. I was in a slump when I quit, and thought I was sort of washed up.

“But once I was out, I realized it really was what I really wanted to do and I was good at it. A year later, I figured I might use the talent I had and get back at it. I don’t regret either decision – quitting the game or coming back to it.”

Soon, Saunders will leave collegiate golf again. This time for good.

He and his Lobo teammates, however, certainly hope that ending doesn’t come this week at the NCAA Regionals in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. Seeded fourth in the 13-team regional, they need to finish in the top five to advance to the NCAA Championships, May 29-June 3 in Bradenton, Fla.

“That would be a great way to go out,” Saunders said. “It’s been our goal all year, not only to get to the NCAA Championships, but to win it. But I think we got a little ahead of ourselves in the fall, thinking too much about that. We just have to focus on regionals right now.”

The Lobos had a so-so fall but have caught fired this spring, and Saunders has been a big reason why.

Saunders tied for fourth individually at the prestigious 3M Augusta Invitational with a career-best 10-under 206 last month in leading the Lobos to the team title. The field included then-No. 2 ranked Illinois and No. 3 Texas.

Earlier this month, at a PGA Tour Canada Qualifier in California, he had a share of the lead until making a triple-bogey on the last of 54 holes. “I went for the win and tried a really tough shot into the wind around a fairway tree,” he said.

He finished fifth, which guaranteed him of playing the first six events on the tour – which feeds into the Tour – in a few weeks. The top players after the first six weeks are assured of more events on the circuit. The top five players at season’s end automatically get on the 2016 Tour, which feeds into the PGA Tour.

But if the Lobos do make it to the NCAA Championships, Saunders would miss the first two events in Canada and join the tour during its third event.

“I would love to miss those two weeks,” he said with a smile. “Playing for the national championship is the goal. That would still give me four tournaments in Canada, and I feel confident that I can play well enough in those to keep playing in Canada the rest of the season.”

UNM coach Glen Millican agrees.

“He sure is playing great, with what he did in California and what he’s done for us this spring. When you’re around the players on a regular basis, you don’t notice the improvements as much because you see them every day. But Sam’s game progressively has gotten tighter and tighter, and his mistakes have gotten smaller and smaller. And he’s just a really competitive guy. You wouldn’t get that if you sit around and talk to him, because he’s so laid back. But he is so competitive and always gets the most out of himself.”

A desire to be the best, improbably, was one thing that drove Saunders away from golf after his sophomore season.

“He is so driven to succeed, which is why he does good in school,” former New Mexico State golfer Dave Saunders said of his son, Sam, who has a degree in finance and is working on his MBA. “I think he was comparing himself too much to his cohort (Lobo) Gavin (Green) those first two years, thinking he had to beat Gavin to be on the team. And that’s a big fish to fry. (Green) isn’t a normal college player. He hits it 25 yards farther than everyone out there.”

Green, a senior, has won eight tournaments during his career – the most in school history – and is expected to be named All-American for a third straight year.

But it wasn’t just trying to match Green that had Sam Saunders pulling away from the game.

“I just really wanted to do other things in life,” he said. “I have a lot of interests, and I wasn’t able to do anything else in life but practice and go to school.”

He remained in school to pursue his degree in finance, which he now has. He picked up his guitar much more often, hit the slopes with his snowboard, went fly-fishing and hiking.

He also went to work at GolfMart, which Dave has owned for about three decades.

Sam said his family – which includes older brother and former Lobo star and current pro Steve Saunders; former Lobos and uncles Jeff Fulwiler and Jack Saunders; and mom Debbie Saunders – was supportive and didn’t try to push him back into the game.

“But honestly, I couldn’t understand him leaving it,” Dave said with a laugh. “At that time, I was thinking that maybe he could go to another school, like NMSU.

“I didn’t pressure him, but I was thinking, ‘You’re crazy, man. If nothing else, the girls like golfers.’ I hate to admit it, but I was thinking, ‘How are you gonna get the girl?’ But it’s all really worked out well. He’s playing great, has his degree and has a great girlfriend.”

During the break from the Lobos, Saunders started dating local sportscaster Christy Waite, and the two have been together about two years.

“That’s something else that’s worked out well,” Sam said with a smile. “We actually met at the (Albuquerque Men’s Amateur) City Tournament.”

Sam didn’t win the event that year, but apparently won a heart. He won the tournament last year, an event his brother, Steve, Fulwiler and Millican have also captured.

Sam will turn pro as soon as the Lobos’ season ends. His former high school coach, Robert Perea, is looking forward to Saunders’ future.

“I would love to see a La Cueva golfer on the PGA Tour, and I think we’re going to see at least one soon,” Perea said. “Both the Saunders (Steve was also a state champion at La Cueva) had someone on the team that kind of helped push them, because both really wanted to be No. 1. Steve had Zach Fullerton, and Sam had (current NMSU senior star) Patrick Beyhan.

“Both the Saunders are such hard workers and are tough as nails. I think that, and their desire, will get them both to the PGA Tour.”

And that is Sam’s dream of dreams.

“That would be amazing,” Sam said. “Steve’s doing great in his professional career (playing on last year’s Tour). I’ve always dreamed about playing with him, like in the Masters, in the last group. That would be the ultimate.”

And that from a guy who just two years ago thought he was finished with the game.

“It wasn’t the picture-perfect way you envision it in high school: going right in and playing and being competitive and playing every tournament. But looking back, sitting out much of those first two years was a good experience. Mentally, I needed to mature a lot, and I’m so thankful for coach Millican for giving me another chance.

“I feel I came back with a renewed desire and a much better player.”

Back in the swing of things

Lobo golfer Sam Saunders left the game for a year to regain his perspective and is now one of the team’s top players