Sam Saunders was in control of his putting game from his first hole to his final putt on Sunday at the final round of the 58th Navajo Trail Open at Hillcrest Golf Club. Saunders wasn’t going to let a lead slip away again.
The Albuquerque native reversed his fortunes from 2016, when he took second to mentor Wil Collins, and fired a bogey-free final round score of 5-under par 67 to win the title and finished at 11-under 202 for the tournament. Saunders was the leader after the first 18 holes, but had a slip up on Saturday and fell one shot behind the lead. On Sunday, he made four birdies and made the most of his par chances – and saves – by staying at even-par or under through the round. He held off a late push on the final two holes from Saturday’s co-leader, Andrew Buckle, and last year’s championship flight winner, Chandler Smith-Stetson, who both shot 10-under to tie for second-place.
Saunders won $5,500 in prize money.
“I just got to a good start, which was great and hit three perfect shots on that first hole and was able to keep it up all day,” Saunders said. “I didn’t really hit my driver very good and was in the rough a lot. I had to play to the center of the green and two-putt and go on. I know this course is hard, and you don’t have to shoot a million under to win, so I just wanted to hit it in the middle of the green and try my best to two-putt. My last two holes, those were the only two drives that I hit in the fairway all day; I really sprayed it all over the lot, but was able to recover despite it all.”
Collins finished fourth with an 8-under 205, while Benoit Beisser, the co-leader alongside Buckle after 36 holes, finished in fifth after he shot a 4-over 75. He finished the tournament at 4-under 209.
Saunders’ signature shot was a birdie on the par-5 17th hole. With water to the left and an out-of-bounds to the right, he set himself up perfectly with a drive down the middle of the fairway. He used his 4-iron his next shot to set him up for a chip and would eventually lead to a kick-in birdie.
“At the end, it was all about being steady and trying to hit it in the middle of the green because I didn’t have any options,” Saunders said. “The greens are firm and it makes it tough to attack any of the tough pins when you’re in the rough.”
The final group consisted of Buckle and Beisser, the co-leaders heading into the final round, alongside Collins and Saunders.
The surprise of the day came from outside the final group, as Smith-Stetson roared back after he shot the lowest final-round score in the field with a 7-under 64. He started the day at 3-under in third, and was five strokes back of the lead, but made seven birdies, including the par-5 17 to bring a nip-and-tuck finish down to the final hole. On the last hole, Smith-Stetson’s approach shot from 170 yards out landed 25 feet from the pin and he was able to two-putt to save par. His par putt caught the inside lip and rolled in, much to the relief of the first-year professional.
On Saunders final hole, with the pin pushed to the right corner of the green, his drive landed in the middle of the fairway and got it onto the green on his next shot. He sunk his final par putt from 4 feet to lock up the win.
“Last year, I won a couple of times and played really well all summer,” Saunders said. “This feels different because I don’t feel that I played extraordinarily well like I did last summer when everything was clicking and it felt easy. I’ve sort of been struggling this year and haven’t had any success all year, so it’s nice because I feel like the hard work is starting to go in the right direction.”
Simon Miller won the championship flight with a 6-under 207 to win the amateur title over Andrew Chinm who was 8-over, and Tyler Diehl, who was 9-over. Adrian Morse won the first flight title with a 12-over 225, Greg Knutsen won the second flight title with a 244. In the third flight, Robert Pollock took home the victory with a 254, while John Toohey won the fourth flight with a 275.
Saunders and many pros will head to the San Juan Open in Farmington this Thursday through Sunday at the San Juan Country Club.
“I didn’t play great this week, but to still get it done, it showed me a lot about my putting, my short game, and I can build on that going forward – plus my driver, too. I feel like I’m in good shape for next week and beyond.”