FARMINGTON — A crowded gallery gathered around the 18th hole to honk their golf cart horns in saluting Jim Knous following his championship-clinching, one-foot putt today.
They knew they had just witnessed an accomplishment unseen at the San Juan Open in 13 years.
Behind another masterful round of golf at the San Juan Country Club, Knous chased down his second consecutive title. The 26-year-old from Colorado finished 23-under-par over a four-day period, in which he never fell out of first place.
Knous' victory marks the first time a golfer has conquered the Open in back-to-back years since Albuquerque native Brian Kortan did it three times in a row from 2001-03.
"It feels really great. I would almost say it feels better than last year, just to come back and repeat." Knous said. "It's really difficult to do that. I just feel like my game's in a really great place right now."
Knous closed the 52nd annual Open the way he started it Thursday, by shooting a 7-under 64. He came into the day with a two-shot lead over Ryan Dillon, who wound up being leapfrogged by University of New Mexico graduate Sam Saunders during the back nine of a competitive final round.
Saunders, playing in the Open for the first time in his career, picked up momentum on the 13th hole, where he landed a great iron shot on a par 3, followed by a difficult birdie putt to put him five strokes behind Knous.
"It was a par 3 with a really steep green, and I hit it just above the hole and then made a really tough putt," Saunders said. "I made a good putt there and I just kept hitting it close."
But Knous was not to be outdone on the 13th. By nailing a chip shot from 40 feet out in the rough, Knous birded the hole as well. Every time Saunders hit a great shot to birdie or par, Knous was right there to answer him. The champion and runner-up said they fed off each other all day.
"Every hole it was just like, stripe down the middle, stripe on the green," Saunders said. "And then make a putt. I don't know, that's what it seemed like. It was fun."
"It was really good to have that good mojo in your group," Knous added. "You know, he's playing well, I'm playing well, and we're just trying to make birdies. It was very helpful, and he's just a great player."
Knous overcame bogeys on the sixth and seventh holes to catch fire as he made the turn. The two-time champ birdied on five of his final seven holes. Saunders was just as hot, birdying on five straight holes before parring on the 17th and 18th.
Tied for sixth after the first day, Saunders said he gained confidence as the Open progressed.
"I just played one practice round before it started and I sort of felt like I learned the golf course every day," Saunders said. "I sort of learned where to hit it and how to read the greens better."
Saunders — who fired an 8-under 63 in his final round — totaled 267 to finish six strokes behind Knous.
Dillon shot a 1-under 70 today, his highest score of the tournament. He took third at 269.
Denver, Colo.'s Nick Mason surged into a tie for fourth after tying the course record for lowest score in history when he shot a 61 today. Mason finished with 271 along with Andy Connell.
Riley Arp and DJ Brigman tied for sixth with matching scores of 275.
Jake Newby covers sports for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.