Palmer’s Grandson Begins Quest
When Sam Saunders realized in middle school he was going to be too short and too slow for basketball, he turned to golf.
Lots of youngsters do that, but Saunders has a unique connection to the game: He's Arnold Palmer's grandson.
Saunders, 22, starts down the road to a possible pro career when he begins play Thursday in the Albertsons Boise Open, a Nationwide Tour tournament that gave him a sponsor's exemption. Rickie Fowler, the former Oklahoma State golfer, makes his debut, too, on a sponsor's exemption.
Fowler is fresh from a 4-0 record in the Walker Cup, helping the USA to a seven-point win Sunday against Great Britain and Ireland. He's a college All-American who has played in the U.S. Open.
Fowler has the credentials, but Saunders has the family connection. And 6-feet tall is fine for golf.
"We have different last names," Saunders said, "but people read about me. They know who I am, who my grandfather is. I've come to the point where I want people to say, 'Sam Saunders, Arnold Palmer's grandson, is a heck of a golfer.' "
Saunders grew up in Orlando, where his parents, Amy and Roy Saunders, run Bay Hill, the club Palmer owns. He credits them for his development.
"I fell in love with golf when I was 12 or 13 years old," he said. "My parents didn't push me to play."
One of the lessons Saunders got from Palmer was the same one Palmer got from his father, Deke.
"Here's how you hold the club," the lesson goes. "Now don't ever change it."
"The grip is the most important thing to him," Saunders said. "He believes if you have a bad grip it sets you up for other bad things to happen."
Saunders spent three years at Clemson but dropped out after last spring to focus on preparing for a career in tournament golf. Palmer wanted Saunders to get his degree, but Saunders said he is an independent sort who has definite opinions about what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.
"It's a challenge I've been looking forward to for a long time," he said. "I've always dreamed of playing golf for a living."
Saunders has had few formal lessons, but this summer he has been working with Brian Mogg, the Orlando teaching pro who trained Y.E. Yang, the winner of the PGA Championship.
"Sam is definitely a feel player," Mogg said, "but a lot of people are feel players."
Mogg said Saunders is "crazy long" off the tee, noting that during a playing lesson last week he hit a drive 350 yards.
"He's fun to be around," Mogg said. "He believes in himself, but he's not cocky."
The trip from sponsor's exemption on the Nationwide Tour to total exemption on the PGA Tour is what Mogg called "a long journey."
It might take years to travel. If Saunders makes the cut this week, he is exempt from pre-qualifying for the PGA Tour Qualifying School, but there are still three more stages of it before he can earn a card to the PGA Tour.
If he makes it through the final stage of Q School but doesn't earn a Tour card, he earns status for next year on the Nationwide Tour, the common route to the PGA Tour.