WATKINSVILLE, Georgia—He may not be the official King of the State Opens, but Sam Saunders does have three wins in state events—in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. Where Saunders hasn’t won is on a PGA TOUR-affiliated Tour. That changed Saturday.
Saunders, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, native and proud New Mexico Lobo, poured in a six-foot par putt on the first sudden-death playoff hole to win the L&J Golf Championship at Jennings Mill Country Club, the inaugural Forme Tour tournament. He defeated Tour rookie Trevor Werbylo, who settled for second in his professional debut.
“Actually, it was pretty good. I didn’t have the best lie. It was way into the grain. It was pretty hard,” Saunders said of his final chip of the tournament that led to his par save and the title. “I honestly thought I could chunk it and hit it to two feet. I was sort of nervous, too, so I was pretty proud of the chip.
“It didn’t end up getting that close,” Saunders continued, “but I hit it really solid, and it landed right where I wanted it to. I left myself uphill and hit a great putt after that.”
On a day with a lot of leaderboard movement, Saunders moved to the lead when he birdied the par-4 13th hole, with playing partner Luke Schniederjans chasing him. Playing two holes ahead, Werbylo looked like he had shot himself out of the tournament when he made a double bogey-6 at the seventh hole. From there, the former Arizona Wildcat made birdies at Nos. 8, 10, 11, 13 and 16. Looking to post a 17-under score, he missed the green with his approach shot on his 72nd hole but got up and down for par.
Saunders had a chance to win in regulation, but his 55-foot birdie effort—not exactly one you would think about making—just about went in.
“It looked really good for a long time. But I was pretty far,” Saunders said. “To be honest, I was just trying to have a good pace. But eight feet out, I thought, Wait a minute, this has a chance. It ended up as a tap-in, and that’s all I wanted, really.
“I don’t like to look at leaderboards. I had no idea,” he continued, talking about what he knew about the scoreboard. “But you always sort of know. I thought if I got to 17(-under), I would probably win. I thought 16 was pretty strong, too.”
Sixteen ended up being the number, and on to the playoff they went, with Saunders winning the overtime session and taking the early Points List lead. The victory was worth 500 points and $20,000. Saunders also won despite making three double bogeys over the course of his 73 holes, probably speaking more to the difficulty of Jennings Mill Country Club than his play.
“Usually, you don’t have a chance to win when you make doubles like that,” he added. “There is a lot of out of bounds. Today, I was really doing my best on every hole to put it in the fairway. Then, if I didn’t have a good (yardage) number for my approach, I was trying to put it in the middle of the green. It worked out well.”
In defeat, Werbylo was philosophical. “Today was really good. I made a double (bogey) on seven. Other than that, it was really solid all around,” he said. “I’m very happy with the way I played this week. I gave myself a chance.”
Following his win, Saunders was already thinking about the next tournament and what this week’s performance portends.
“I’m super excited. I’m so glad to have this Tour in the states this year,” he continued. “I can’t be more thankful to the TOUR for giving us somewhere to play given how difficult things have been. It’s been my dream to get to the PGA TOUR for a long time, and I think this is definitely the path for that.”
Luke Schniederjans, a Georgia Tech alum who still lives in metro Atlanta, finished alone in third. He had a chance to join the playoff but needed a birdie on the 18th hole. He made a par. Former Auburn University star Michael Johnson was in good form this week, finishing alone in fourth as he prepares for next week’s Auburn University Club Invitational that begins Wednesday.
Did you know Samuel Saunders has a choice to make about his playing schedule? As a winner and runner-up of the Colorado Open, the 2021 edition of that tournament conflicts with the Forme Tour’s fourth event of the season, the Birck Boilermaker Classic on July 29-August 1. “I’m debating. I would like to play in Colorado because they have been so good to me, and I love that golf course (Green Valley Ranch). I was planning on playing all eight on the Forme Tour, and this is my goal. I wanted to be in the top 10 on the Points List. That was my thought at the start of the year, and I’m obviously No. 1 right now, so I’m in a good spot going forward.”
Points List Standings
Through L&J Golf Championship at Jennings Mill Country Club