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Defending champ Calum Hill finishes four strokes behind

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FARMINGTON — Sam Saunders kept grinding out nice, smooth strokes to win his first-ever San Juan Open title today at San Juan Country Club and knock defending champion Calum Hill off the mountaintop.

Saunders shot 267 (17 under par) and beat Hill by four strokes.

“It’s fantastic. It’s been a long time coming,” said Saunders, an Albuquerque native who turned pro in 2015. “I haven’t too much success, especially lately, so I finally let go and relaxed. I was finally able to get a win.”

It was a one- or two-stroke battle on the leaderboard for much of the day, as the pair alternated between first and second place.

Hill then had serious trouble on the 13th hole. He said he hit a “terrible” drive from the right tee. Shortly after, he hit a shot right into the sandpit. And his struggles didn’t end there.

“Once I was out of the sand, (the ball) spun a little and came all the way off the front of the green again,” Hill said. “The (13th) hole is not very easy.”

That sequence played a big role in the outcome.

From there, Saunders drained back-to-back birdies on the 14th and 15th holes to give himself a little extra cushion.

Hill also birdied 14 and 15, but Saunders said he knew he had to birdie those holes to maintain his lead.

“With the wind, (no hole) was a guarantee. I had to grind pretty hard on 14,” Saunders said, who sunk a breaking 6-foot putt for birdie on No. 14. “It was so difficult with the wind, and there’s trouble everywhere out here.”

Although Hill pulled away from the group to win the tournament last year, winning by nine strokes, he and Saunders were in a dogfight all weekend.

Saunders led Hill by two strokes entering Saturday’s third round, and Hill regained a one-stroke lead over Saunders entering today’s final round.

And even after Hill’s blunder on the 13th hole, Saunders was far from home free.

Saunders said he tried to play shots into the wind and avoid tough spots.

“I was able to do that for the most part,” Saunders said.

Every shot mattered, and Saunders kept at it to claim the title.

San Juan Open professional results

1. Sam Saunders, 267

2. Calum Hill, 271

3. Jesse Mueller, 274

4. Tie between Justin Keiley and Derek Tolan, 275

6. Nick Mason, 276

7. Tie between Ryan Wallen and Justin Bardgett, 279

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577.

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