ORLANDO, FLORIDA | The reminders of Arnold Palmer at Bay Hill Club and Lodge are almost everywhere.
It’s not just a place Palmer owned and hosted what is now the Arnold Palmer Invitational for years before his passing in the fall of 2016. He was a part of the place, a piece of the scenery and the emotional center of a spot where he and golf lived together.
On Thursday afternoon, Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders stood under one of the many red, white, green and yellow umbrellas outside the tournament scoring trailer, his grandfather’s famous logo brought to life. A few feet away, Palmer’s golf bag stood at the edge of the practice tee where he hit balls for all those years, one more memory trigger at a place full of them.
Saunders knows all about them. As a 14-year-old, he played as a marker alongside Peter Jacobsen in the final round of the 2002 Bay Hill Invitational with his grandfather walking with them that Sunday morning.
Now 31, Saunders has become, in some ways, the face of his grandfather’s event. He is the unofficial host even as he goes about the business of trying to turn another corner in his professional career. Saunders has been a good player but with nine top-10 finishes in 134 PGA Tour starts, he’s been a working man in a game of stars.
As much as Saunders would like this to be just another work week, it can’t be. It fell to Saunders to lead a practice tee celebration on Wednesday, kicking off the tournament with tour players doing their best to imitate Palmer’s famous corkscrew finish.
There are sponsors to greet, interviews to give, television appearances to make.
It’s not a role Saunders sought but one into which he has gracefully grown. When he delivered a eulogy at his grandfather’s funeral, Saunders spoke from the heart, without notes. It was the most impressive and touching moment in a day full of them.
This week at Bay Hill, like the two previous editions without his grandfather’s presence, Saunders radiates genuineness.
“I don’t know that I’m that comfortable with it yet. I’m trying to learn to enjoy myself and play normally. I still don’t have the normal feelings I do out there every other week of the year. I don’t know if it’s trying too hard or what,” Saunders said in the shadow of an umbrella after a first-round 73.
“It’s a lot of attention for things other than playing good golf. It’s something I’m trying to learn to deal with. I enjoy it. I’m proud of this event and how good this golf course is and the field we have. I’m out there trying to enjoy myself and play my best golf but it’s certainly a lot of work.”
There was a time, people close to Saunders say, when being the grandson of the most popular golfer ever was a burden. For all it brought him, Saunders also had to live with the expectations of others.
He didn’t grow up at Bay Hill and he eventually moved to Denver to have his own life. That’s where he met his wife, Kelly, who didn’t know he was related to Palmer until she Googled him a month after their first date.
They eventually moved back to Florida and now live in Atlantic Beach near Jacksonville with their two children.
There were whispers about what would happen to the Arnold Palmer Invitational once Palmer was gone. Would the top players quit coming? Would the tournament’s stature decline?
“We couldn’t rely on him anymore and just being here in his presence. Everybody wanted to be here because of that but now we need everybody to want to be here because it’s one of the best golf courses on tour. … It’s a great event.” – Sam Saunders
Three years in, it’s as strong as ever as Arnold Palmer Enterprises navigates its new world. Saunders has embraced his role in the tournament’s evolution.
“We couldn’t rely on him anymore and just being here in his presence. Everybody wanted to be here because of that but now we need everybody to want to be here because it’s one of the best golf courses on tour. I certainly think it’s that. It’s a great event. Word has gotten out the course keeps getting better and better,” Saunders said.
By Thursday, when the unseasonably cold temperatures had begun to surrender to more Florida-like early spring weather, Saunders was in full tournament mode again. He’d been up by 4:45 a.m. for an early tee time and had an afternoon rest break planned before returning to Bay Hill to keep an eye on things.
“He’s gotten to the point where he knows how much he can do and what puts him in a good position to have success,” Eric Cole, Saunders’ caddie, said.
“He’s great at it. He wants to do as much as possible but at some point you still have to be ready to play golf. It’s still a golf tournament.”
For Saunders, though, it will never be just another golf tournament. While continuing to wrestle with hitting more fairways in the first round, Saunders understands the connection he represents in his grandfather’s tournament.
“There’s a lot of well wishes and it’s great,” Saunders said. “A lot of ‘love your granddad’ out there which is great. I’m glad the people are out and I’m glad they’re happy to see me out there still carrying it on.”
Sam Saunders tees off on the 18th hole during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge. Photo: Reinhold Matay, USA Today Sports
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