LORTON, Va. — By all rights, Sam Saunders probably should not be here this week competing in the 88th U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship at Laurel Hill Golf Club.
But so far, Saunders, an alternate out of sectional qualifying, is making the most out of the opportunity.
After an opening-round, 4-under 66, the 21-year-old finds himself in fourth place and three strokes out of the lead in the stroke-play portion of this championship, open to amateurs who, since Jan. 1, 2013, have been bona fide public-course players and have a USGA handicap not exceeding 4.4.
It’s the road he took to this town just outside Washington, D.C., to compete in only his second USGA championship that proved quite a journey.
At his APL qualifier at Paa-Ko Ridge GC in Sandia Park, N.M., which offers just one spot in the championship proper, Saunders appeared headed home with just nine holes to play.
“Those first nine holes the second round I was just horrible,” said Saunders, 21, of Albuquerque, N.M. “I was like seven shots behind to the second place guy and pretty thought I had no chance.”
Then, Saunders caught fire and shot a 32 over those last nine holes. No, it wasn’t good enough to secure the lone spot — Greg Condon got that with his 135 total — but his 145 score was good enough to put him in a playoff for first alternate, which he landed on the first extra hole against Andrew Tapia.
Still, things looked pretty dim as the APL drew closer. So dim, in fact, that Saunders, a senior at New Mexico where he was a member of the golf team his first two years, signed up to play in Sun Country Amateur Golf Association Match Play Championship.
“I sort of gave up hope of getting in (APL),” Saunders said. “It didn’t look good, that’s for sure.”
On Wednesday (July 10), he went through the stroke-play portion of the SCAGA event and qualified for match play.
The next day he withdrew after getting a call from the USGA informing him of a late WD and he was in — the last player to gain entry. He arrived in Virginia late Saturday and managed a practice round on Sunday.
“It’s been quite a journey just getting here and then to come out and shoot 66 the first day just adds to it all,” Saunders said.
At last year’s APL, Saunders played in his first USGA championship. He qualified for match play as the 62nd seed and then defeated Talor Gooch in his first match before being eliminated in the round of 32.
“I think playing last year and getting to match play helped me this year,” Saunders said. “Last year I was super nervous the whole time. This year I was still nervous on the first tee, but calmed down right after that.”
Saunders began his round on the 10th hole with a birdie. A bogey at 11 was followed by a birdie at 13 and another bogey at 14.
He made his turn a 1 under after a birdie at the 18th and then went on a tear with birdies at 2, 3, 4 and 5. He bogeyed No. 7 before closing with a pair of pars.
“All in all it was a really good day,” said Saunders, who earlier this month shot 19 under at the Albuquerque City Championship — and lost by five shots. “I felt good about my game coming in and I’m looking forward to the rest of the week. Hopefully things will keep going well for me.”