By Mike Sorensen, Deseret News
For Sam Saunders and Kelton Hirsch it wasn’t about the money as they battled in a sudden-death playoff at the conclusion of the Siegfried & Jensen Utah Open Sunday afternoon at Riverside Country Club.
Saunders had already wrapped up the $20,000 professional’s first prize, while Hirsch had locked up low amateur honors and wasn’t eligible for any cash. This was purely about competing and trying to get a victory.
The two golfers put on a show for the spirited gallery around the 18th hole with some terrific shots, and in the end it was Saunders, a 27-year-old from New Mexico, who claimed the title with a par on the second hole of the playoff.
“That’s why I play golf, I loved every moment of that,” Saunders said after the victory. “I really don’t play golf for money — it helps to prolong my career playing in these tournaments — I love playing golf and competing. That was really fun.”
Saunders had to withstand one of the most stirring comebacks in Utah Open history, as Hirsch, a 23-year-old junior-to-be at BYU, made up five strokes in five holes to force the sudden-death playoff. It wasn’t just making up the strokes, it was how he did it that was so thrilling.
The two were playing in the final group with Phoenix pro Blake Cannon and with five holes to play, Saunders was 15-under par for the tourney, while Hirsch was 10-under with several golfers bunched between them on the leaderboard.
Hirsch, the 2017 Utah State Amateur champion, had just made three bogeys in five holes to seemingly fall out of contention, when he said to himself, “You can either crumble and keep making bogeys or make a run at this thing. So I just flipped it on and said, let’s be aggressive … and make a run at it.”
He birdied 14 and 15, then hit his wedge at 16 within 3 feet and sank that for a birdie. Now he was only down two, but when he hit his tee shot left into the rough at the par-3 17th, he faced a seemingly impossible shot to a pin tucked on the left side, leaving him with less than 10 feet of green to work with.
However, he hit an outstanding flop shot that settled within inches of the cup, nearly going in.
“It was spectacular, probably the best chip shot I’ve ever seen,” said Saunders.
“Maybe my best of all time,” added Hirsch.
With Saunders making bogey on the hole, the margin was down to one, but it looked like Hirsch was out of it when at 18 he hit over the left bunker on his drive and then left his approach some 30 feet below the hole. However, he rolled the putt in and celebrated with a fist pump, forcing a playoff.
The two played No. 18 a second time and again Saunders had the edge, hitting within 10 feet, while Hirsch was 25 feet away. But again Hirsch rolled in his putt, forcing Saunders to sink his to stay alive.
“I play for a moment like that to make a putt to win or continue — there’s no feeling like it,” Saunders said. “I hit a great putt and it went in.”
The third time the two played 18, Hirsch’s luck ran out as he missed a 7-footer for par after hitting in the front bunker and Saunders two-putted to finally claim the trophy.
Park City pro Steele DeWald finished third, just one shot back at 203 after shooting the best score of the tournament, an 8-under-par 64, Sunday along with Las Vegas pro Mitch Carlson.
“That was a solid round, one of the better rounds I’ve played,” said the 32-year-old DeWald, who will try PGA Tour Q School this fall.
Saunders often gets mixed up with the other Sam Saunders, who is a regular on the PGA Tour and is the grandson of Arnold Palmer. He said people used to ask him about his grandpa and he one time got charged by the PGA Tour for some travel and had to have the other Saunders reimburse him a thousand dollars.
He won the Colorado Open, which featured a $100,000 first prize, three weeks ago and will defend his New Mexico Open title later next month. He said he’d like to play the PGA Tour someday, but this fall will try to qualify for the European Tour.
Hirsch will return to BYU with increased confidence after his fine week, following up on a second-place finish at the Salt Lake City Open last week. “To be able to bounce back like that really proved to myself and to a lot of people I can play and compete with the best of the pros,” he said. “I had two great finishes.”