By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
Former La Cueva High and University of New Mexico golf star Sam Saunders erased a six-shot deficit on the back nine, then won a playoff to capture the 65th-annual New Mexico Open today.
Saunders, also a former Albuquerque City Men’s Amateur champion, has been sizzling this summer in state tours. He won the San Juan Open in Farmington in June and followed that up with second-place finishes at the Colorado Open and Utah Open.
In Colorado, he fired an incredible 60 in one round.
Now a N.M. Open title is yet another feather in Saunders’ Ping hat.
“I had really been struggling on tour,” Saunders said of playing on the (PGA Tour Latinoamérica), and I really thought about not playing professionally any longer. But I came home and went to my old swing coach, John Mercer, and everything has really improved.
“I’m pretty excited about my game again.”
Saunders, 26, said he had previously worked with Mercer “for a long time. I knew him from when my dad (Dave Saunders) owned (Albuquerque’s) Golf Mart. He sold it, but John is still there.”
Saunders trailed by four shots entering the final round and six shots after 10 holes of today’s final round of the 54-hole event. He made up that entire deficit, and took Jeff Burton (Scottsdale, Ariz.) into sudden death.
Saunders won on the third extra hole with a par and picked up $14,000 of the $85,000 purse in the event held at Sandia Golf Club.
Saunders shot rounds of 65-70-68 to finish at 13 under.
“It’s funny,” Saunders told Enchantment Sports, “I had been putting so much pressure on myself to keep playing, but once I stopped worrying about it – and was OK with whatever happened – I started playing the best golf of my life.”
Albuquerque’s D.J. Brigman, a former PGA Tour player who won the N.M. Open in 2000, came in third at 10 under, while defending champion Tyler Torano (Chula Vista, Calif.) and Tyler Weworski (Carlsbad, Calif.) tied for fourth at 9 under.
Santa Fe’s Marty Sanchez tied for eighth at 7 under, Albuquerque’s Alex Estrada tied for 12th at 6 under and Isaac Merry of Las Cruces tied for 15th at 5 under.
The Albuquerqueans David Muttitt and former N.M. Open winner Wil Collins tied for 19th at 5 under; Albuquerque’s Steve Manning tied for 37th at even par.
UNM golfer Sean Carlon of Albuquerque tied for 45th at 3 over and Albuquerque’s Notah Begay III, who won the event in 1998 and had four PGA Tour wins from 1999-2000, tied for 47th at 4 over.
NOTES: Dave Saunders and Sam’s mom, Debbie Saunders, are well known in the Albuquerque golfing community, as is Sam’s older brother, Steve.
Steve, a third-team PING All-America selection for UNM in 2009 and a PGA club professional who is close to gaining Class A status, works at a course in Temecula, Calif.
… Albuquerque’s Billy Moya, a candidate for this year’s New Mexico Sports Hall of Fame, was the first-ever winner of the event, capturing it in 1954 as an amateur.
Mark Smith has been in New Mexico sports journalism for four decades and is the editor-in-chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.