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Almost exactly 10 years to the day after his last win at the Atomic City Invitational, Lee Sanchez had one of his finest performances at the event.
He would need it.
Jason Norman came back from three holes down with six to play in the 27-hole final of the ACI to force sudden death Sunday.
After some of the biggest clutch shots the tournament has seen, Sanchez’s gap wedge shot on the first playoff hole proved to be the biggest.
Sanchez clanked his shot from the left rough 75 yards out off the flagstick, with the ball coming to rest within 18 inches of the cup.
He casually dropped his ensuing putt to win his third Atomic City title.
The ACI is the premier event of the season at Los Alamos Golf Course. This year, 124 players took part, the largest field in four years.
“I got lucky,” Sanchez said of the shot that finally put Norman away after a gutsy match. “I had an opening. My ball was sitting pretty good. I saw where Jason was and he had a tough chip.”
On the first sudden death hole, played on No. 1, Sanchez and Norman drove within about 20 feet of each other into a cluster of trees.
Norman, who was away, hit a line drive off the mound on the left-front of the green, where it stuck. Sanchez then lifted his shot through the branches to the pin.
Sanchez said he was going to use his lob wedge for his second shot, but changed his mind at the last second.
“I have a lot of confidence in that club, but I don’t get to use it much,” Sanchez said of his gap wedge.
It was the second win against a red-hot player in as many days for Sanchez, who won the event in both 1997 and 1998. Saturday, Sanchez won a big 5 and 4 victory over Eric Trujillo, who carded a 4-under a day earlier.
In the tournament, Sanchez knocked out all three members of the Norman family. Father Bruce Norman fell to Sanchez in Thursday’s first round 2 and 1, while younger brother Curt forced two extra holes but fell to Sanchez in the quarterfinals Friday.
Norman, for his part, won Wednesday’s qualifying round with a 2-under, then won three straight matches with holes to spare to get to the championship.
He said his big win of the tournament was his first round 5 and 4 decision over Mike Self, who bumped him from the championship flight in their previous two ACI meetings.
The two were even after the first 18 holes — Sanchez had been 2-up after 16 — but Sanchez grabbed three straight wins with Norman struggling with his short irons on No. 1 and No. 2.
With just six holes to play, Norman got rolling.
“Standing out on the fourth tee, I got the sense from the crowd that they thought it was over,” Norman said. “I was probably the least worried person out there. There was a ton of golf left to play.”
Norman parred the fourth hole while Sanchez took a bogey, getting back into the contest, then on the fifth tee, Norman crushed a 340-yard drive on the 361-yard hole, then chipped to within four feet to knock Sanchez’s advantage down to 1.
Norman would pick up a birdie on the seventh to tie it up, setting up two of the best back-to-back shots of the tournament.
On the ninth, Sanchez was in the short rough to the left of the fairway and Norman was in the short rough on the right. Sanchez thudded a 150-yard approach off the separation between the green’s two tiers, leaving him just six feet from the cup.
Norman, not to be outdone, lifted his 130-yard approach and bounced also to within about six feet. Both men birdied the hole to keep the match even.
“I hit a good shot on eight,” Sanchez said. “When I put it there, I didn’t expect him to hit his shot like that. It was a great match.”
Norman had an early lead in Sunday’s contest but started missing some putts to let Sanchez tie and eventually move ahead.
His 6-foot par putt on 17 cut Sanchez’s edge to one. Norman said it was one of his most important shots of the day.
“A couple of putts lipped out (Sunday),” Norman said. “ I think I needed to see one putt go in…I was in a place where I had to pick it up quickly or go home early.”
In other action Sunday, Trujillo topped Tim Johnson, whom Norman beat 3 and 2 in Saturday’s semifinal, in the third place contest, while Curt Norman beat Gary Rich 2 and 1 to win the consolation final.