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FARMINGTON – With his San Juan Open title defense now in full swing, Sam Saunders knows how to handle the tougher times when they arise.

The Albuquerque native experienced that first-hand in overthrowing 2017 champion Calum Hill. That itself was a long, nail-biting journey to the top.

Saunders and Hill went back-and-forth the first 12 holes, within two strokes of each other.

After Hill struggled on the 13th hole, Saunders pushed ahead with back-to-back birdies on holes 14 and 15.

That was the main thing he took from his tournament victory last year: just to hang in there the whole time, on each hole, even when the stress may gradually heighten.

“That whole experience was really great for me. I learned a ton about myself, how to handle my emotions under pressure,” Saunders said. “It just taught me that you’re always in it. As long as you don’t shoot something really over par and knock yourself out, I know I’m still going to have a chance.”

Saunders is off to a solid start in the 2019 San Juan Open, shooting 68 (three strokes under par) in today’s opening round.

As the holes got tougher, Saunders again stayed within himself and hit nice, fluid strokes.

The winds picked up as players closed out Day 1 on the front-9, particularly on the seventh green.

“It was just straight into the wind,” Saunders said. “You’ve got to hit it solid and hit it straight.”

But he still hit plenty of good shots and ended today on a promising note.

“I think I’m still in a decent position. Yeah, it was encouraging,” Saunders said. “Hit a bunch of great shots in play. I feel like I’m in good shape.”

And now he looks to keep on grinding in his quest for back-to-back titles.

“That’d be really awesome,” Saunders said. “I’d love to be on that list of repeat champions.”

Matt Hollinshead covers sports for the Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4577 and on Twitter at @MattH_717.

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