Sam Saunders is the grandson of one of the greatest golfers to ever play the game, Arnold Palmer. Not an easy position to be in, but Sam has had a great career so far (including playing in the 2005 Spirit), and has started really playing well lately.
We found a great article about granddad and grandson, and it’s particularly appropriate with the Bay Hill Invitational kicking off today.
ORLANDO, Fla. – The grandfather, the legend, the man upon whose door hook golf hangs its tam-o’-shanter, hasn’t hit a golf ball in a couple of months. He tripped on a rug at home and took a hard fall in December, separating his right shoulder. At 85, Palmer plays his golf mostly in the mind, through the endless spinning reels of yesteryear magic, his hair forever brown, his red visor still flying triumphantly across the sky.
The grandson will be 28 in a few months. Late July. Twenty-eight, already? Wow. Time really does fly. It wasn’t that long ago when he was chasing away hot summer afternoons on Bay Hill’s Charger course, that little “other” nine, saving days on the big course for when he grew taller and stronger and hit the ball farther. Other summer days were spent watching his “Dumpy,” as he has called his grandfather from a young age, compete at the U.S. Senior Open. The grandson wasn’t as tall as the gallery ropes.
The grandson’s time is now. He’s been here before, playing five times in the tournament that bears his grandfather’s name on the course where he cut his teeth. This time – technically, at least – he’s not here on some handout. Finally, he owns a PGA Tour card. He belongs. Most importantly, deep in his heart, he believes that he belongs. It has taken a long time to get here.
He’s more ready than ever to spread his wings. The grandfather sees this, and that thought alone makes the grandfather’s eyes moisten when he talks about his grandson. Can the kid, if we choose to daydream – and daydream really big at that – be a factor these next four days? Shoot, could he be there on 18 on Sunday, accepting the traditional champion’s sword from his grandfather on Bay Hill’s 18th green? Could this be his best shot at contending?
“Absolutely,” Sam Saunders says confidently and without hesitation.
There might not be enough flashbulbs in this world for that. Saunders is playing in this week’s invitational field not on an unrestricted exemption, which he has been extended in the past, but on one of two exemptions reserved for last season’s Web.com Tour grads, a spot, he says, “I’ve earned in some way, and that feels a lot different for me.” Yes, but can he take it and run, really run, and get himself in the mix at a place where four of the top five players in the world are competing?
“If I just stay calm and stay patient, I feel very good about my game, and hopefully I have a chance to win on Sunday,” he said, probably feeling a little like his grandfather did when he showed up at golf tournaments for oh-so-many years. “That’s what I’m here for.”
If there was one hidden blessing for the grandson, perhaps it was this: his famous grandfather, Arnold Palmer, and Palmer’s late wife, Winnie, had two daughters. So the grandson – Samuel Palmer Saunders, son of Amy and Roy Saunders – at least carries a different last name. In years past, casual golf fans probably were more prone to thinking Ryan Palmer (no relation) was a member of The King’s family, and not that tall, athletic curly-haired kid down the end of the range with “Sam Saunders” on his golf bag.
“I think at times, it definitely helps,” Saunders said. “The Nicklaus boys, I’m sure it was even tougher for them, especially Gary. At this point, there’s no hiding from it. It’s pretty much all the time.”
For many years, Saunders has been his grandfather’s pet project, the kid who showed promise early, who won a couple of Bay Hill club championships, captured some junior trophies and could pound the ball out of sight. He’d make the members stop and ask one another, “My goodness, have you seen Arnold’s grandson hit it? He hits it for miles!” At 14, Sam appeared in the tournament for the first time, as a non-competing marker on Sunday opposite competitor Peter Jacobsen, slated to go off first all alone. Dumpy was out there in his cart, watching, enjoying.
The grandson left Orlando, Fla., after high school and ventured to ACC country to attend college, just as his grandfather did, though the grandson chose Clemson, not his grandfather’s Wake Forest. The grandson never was much of a factor for the Tigers, and few seemed to notice when he left after his junior year and quietly ascended into the pro ranks.
Two years ago, Saunders lost his playing status on the Web.com Tour and was running out of options. He’d played 18 events and made a paltry $27,156, which doesn’t stretch far when one is traveling to such outposts as Panama, Colombia and Chile. He was hurt most of that season with a bulging disk in his back. Now winter was upon him, and at 26, he was newly married (to Kelly). There was one son, Cohen, now 6, from Kelly’s previous marriage, and another was on the way. He’d fallen in love not just with a girl who would become his wife, but a town, too. Fort Collins, Colo., where he’d relocated, reminded him of small-town Windermere, Fla., where he was outside most of the time and there were lots of friends with whom to play. Though the Colorado climate isn’t always favorable for golf, he thought it would be a terrific place to raise his family.
That October, he visited his grandfather in Latrobe, Pa., Palmer’s summer place and true home, and the two had a heart-to-heart about Sam’s future. The kid was out of work.
“I was heading back to (Web.com) Q-School, and I was seriously considering doing something else … because I didn’t know how I was going to, you know, make a living,” Saunders said, “and I was there on a need-to-know basis and we were working together on the back of the range, just the two of us out there.
“He told me what I needed to do, but he also said to me, ‘If I were you, I would be doing the exact same thing you’re doing as far as moving somewhere else, getting married, starting your own life.’ And that meant a lot to me, that he supported the decisions that I had made and that I had kind of gone out and done my own thing.”
Palmer didn’t recall the situation being so dire, as if his grandson couldn’t possibly abandon the game they both love so much. The audacity! Instead, he challenged Saunders.
You have to play well now,” he told the grandson, “or you’re not going to be able to support your family. You need to be a man.”
So the kid stepped up. He went to Q-School at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., shot 64 in the fourth round, and eventually tied for 11th. It was the week before Christmas, and he earned 10 grand. Son Ace, now 15 months and in dad’s arms at Bay Hill on Wednesday, would arrive a few days later. Most importantly, Saunders had a place to work in 2014. He would return to the Web.com Tour and golf’s minor leagues.
Here’s the grandfather’s quandary: He wants to be tough on the kid, the way his father, Deacon Palmer, who first was grounds superintendent and later head professional at Latrobe Country Club, was tough on his children. Stern. Old school. He’s the man who told young Arnold to put his grip on the golf club just like this, and here, move this right hand over a tad, and there! – never change it, son. Never, never, never.
And to his credit, Arnold never did.
He’d win 62 times on the PGA Tour, start collecting majors (seven) and would deliver golf to the masses, the perfect cocktail of charisma and go-for-broke flair meeting up with the fledgling days of golf on television. It was a collision that would change the game. People wanted to try it, and they enlisted in Arnie’s Army in droves.
That grip? “The basic fundamentals,” is what Palmer likes to call it. Aye, though, here’s the rub: The grandfather wants to be tough on his grandson, but he has a difficult time doing it. He’s got a real soft spot for the kid, who has grown to be, beyond a pretty good golfer, a very nice and polite young man.
“Arnold is a tough guy, because he wants to be like his father,” said Alastair Johnston, the vice chairman of IMG and a man who has overseen Palmer’s business interests for decades. He knows Palmer as few others do.
“But he’s very sentimental, and very emotional, as you can see. So he’s got this sort of problem: Do I be really hard on him, or empathetic? Because he’s looking at what his dad did with him in those situations, and he’s wrestling with that.”
The grandfather and grandson don’t have to spend a great deal of time with each other to make the relationship work effectively. Now that Saunders is based halfway across the country in Colorado, Sam might call Dumpy every other week, just to let him know what’s going on. When the two are on the practice tee together, Palmer might need only 10 or 15 minutes with Sam to offer a slight adjustment, or maybe a swing key.
“I think the geographical situation has made it less claustrophobic,” Johnston said. “I think he (Palmer) said with a certain amount of pride that they spend 10 minutes together, and that’s enough. He doesn’t have to be in his face. Sam doesn’t want it that way; Arnold doesn’t want it that way. They’ve worked out that balance.
“I think the relationship now, from a personal standpoint, has never been better. But I think Arnold adding value to Sam is escalating, because Arnold is treating him more independently.
“It’s not claustrophobic.”
Saunders played well enough last season to advance to the four-event Web.com Tour Finals series, and once there, he blossomed. A tie for fourth at the Hotel Fitness Championship, a T-16 and T-12 at two other playoff stops, and then a tie for seventh at the Web.com Tour Championship. Saunders had his PGA Tour card. Check that one off.
He had high expectations, too, which made the slow beginning to his first full season that much tougher to swallow. A couple of so-so performances out of the gate, and then seven starts in which he failed to make the cut (he withdrew in one of those starts). The grandfather could have been tough on him, ringing him up with a heavy-handed lecture, but instead, he gave the grandson space. He understood. For all his great days in golf, The King had hard ones, too. And by saying very little, the grandfather said a whole bunch.
Saunders responded by making it into a playoff March 8 at the Puerto Rico Open, his first venture into Sunday contention on the PGA Tour. On the last hole of regulation, he faced a difficult 40-yard bunker shot; the safest play would have been to intentionally hit the shot fat, likely coming up short of the green. Instead, in true Palmer style, thinking birdie or bust, he went for it. He took a mighty swat and didn’t catch nearly enough sand – his ball didn’t land in the back grandstand, but cleared it altogether. Home run. That was OK, he told himself. He went for it. He was proud of himself for that. He also was as surprised as anyone to get free relief near the grandstand, and made a great up and down for his par. Going for it all with his third shot had given him the confidence to do so, he said afterward. And the words his grandfather had not said were as important as anything he could have told him in his rough patch.
“Through this stretch (of missed cuts), I didn’t make a bunch of changes. I didn’t search for something new. I knew my game was good. I knew it was close,” Saunders said. “His support, telling me to stick with what I’m doing, allowed me to do that.”
Saunders’ second-place showing and earnings ($198,000) will place him in better stead when the Web.com Tour grads are reshuffled in two weeks, following the Shell Houston Open. Last week, he played well again, tying for 24th at the Valspar Championship. He will be back into tournaments (he had to attempt Monday qualifying for the Honda Classic, shooting 67 and falling short) and is back on track.
To his credit, the grandson has been at Bay Hill this week as more than just a competitor, traipsing up and down the range and thanking top players for showing up, just in case his grandfather has yet to get to it. He approached Adam Scott with that message, and he is pleased World No. 1 Rory McIlroy is playing Bay Hill for the first time. The way Saunders views it, if the Tour stages an event to honor a legend such as an Arnold Palmer or a Jack Nicklaus, then everybody should show up. There’s a debt of gratitude to be paid to those who blazed the trail.
Saunders knows his grandfather will not be here forever, and when he isn’t, he wants the tournament at Bay Hill to continue to thrive, and to continue doing so many good charitable endeavors for the Orlando community.
“I watched Sam’s interview today, and when I saw Arnold, I congratulated him on Sam doing so well,” said Mark O’Meara, the soon-to-be World Golf Hall of Famer who was a Bay Hill member for years when he lived in Orlando. “He’s probably the toughest critic on Sam. He lives under a tremendous amount of pressure and scrutiny because he’s Arnold Palmer’s grandson, but he’s a great kid. Arnold has a great family. He’s a legacy, that’s for sure.”
All of this, again, makes the grandfather proudest of all.
“Sam is a very polite young man,” Palmer said, beaming. “He’s finally maturing into a professional golfer and will continue to mature, and as time goes on, he will do even better.
“I’m pleased. As long as his manners and his characteristics are as good as they are, I’ll be happy.”
A grandfather who has done it all, seen it all, enveloped by pride. A grandson on the rise, ready to take flight.
At Bay Hill, there are breakout quotes from Arnold Palmer’s life in golf spread across the grounds. There is one in particular that the grandson should remember when peaks turn to valleys: “The road to success,” his grandfather said, “is always under construction.”