Sam Saunders admits to a certain amount of separation anxiety this week.
The Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard has been part of Saunders’ lifeblood for as long as he can remember, from growing up at Bay Hill Club & Lodge to playing as a marker in his teens to four competitive starts – including the past three editions.
But Palmer’s grandson can be found some 750 miles away this week in Louisiana’s Cajun country, preparing for a Web.com Tour start that he hopes will help lead him back to Bay Hill a year from now.
“Of course I’d love to be there,” Saunders said before his pro-am round at the Chitimacha Louisiana Open. “I love Bay Hill and I love the tournament. But I’m very happy where I am. I know I made the right decision.”
Consider it another step in Saunders’ effort to establish his own identity in the sport.
He’s fully exempt on the Web.com Tour this year, working his way up from conditional status in 2012. His personal life also has taken a big turn, with a new wife (Kelly) and 4-year-old stepson (Cohen) after November’s nuptials.
Saunders also left Orlando for Colorado shortly after Christmas, driving the truck himself to Fort Collins.
“It’s good to get to the point that the whole world doesn’t revolve around you,” he said. “Regardless of how good a guy you are or not, everybody has to go through it at some point. It’s good to put things in perspective.”
Likewise, Saunders has managed to fit in among the Web.com Tour ranks. He placed 50th on the money list a year ago, hitting his stride during the second half of the season as he played a more consistent schedule.
A final-round 67 at the Utah Championship left him one stroke behind winner Doug LaBelle II, later finishing eighth in Maryland. A tie for 13th at the Web.com Tour Championship not only solidified a full card for 2013, but brought a sense of satisfaction.
“I just moved my way up the ranks,” he said. “My goal of getting to the PGA TOUR didn’t happen, but to finish 50th on the money list was solid. One of the most important things I walked away with was that I got better throughout the year.”
There were some bumps along the road as well. After the runner-up finish in Utah, Saunders decided he would drive the next stretch of tournaments through the Midwest – Orlando to Columbus to Springfield, Mo., to Kansas City to Knoxville to Pittsburgh.
It took just three weeks for all those hours in the car to take their toll, forced to withdraw midway through his second round in Springfield.
“My back just totally locked up and I couldn’t even tee the ball up,” he said. “I realized I needed to take a little better care of myself.
“I’d never played that many in a row and trying to drive them all myself was a little ambitious. It was a grind, racking up the miles and trying to find a cheap hotel you could stay in. It was tough both mentally and physically, but it was a good learning experience.”
To some golf fans, the idea of Arnold Palmer’s grandson driving himself between tournaments and staying in inexpensive lodging may come as a surprise. But Saunders always has valued standing on his own feet.
“I’ve actually been amazed in the past by what certain people assume just because of my granddad,” he said.
One such instance came after he qualified for the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, when an interviewer’s suggestion that Palmer had flown Saunders out to Congressional got under young golfer’s skin.
“I said, ‘No, I flew myself here, flew my caddie here. I’m paying $200 a night at a hotel,’ ” he recalled.
“As a grown man, there’s nothing better than being financially independent. As soon as I was able to make enough money to live on my own [and] pay my own bills, I did. I remember the first thing I did was to get off Dad’s cellphone plan. The first decent check I made, I said, ‘Dad, I’m off.’ ”
Golf independence is part of the grand plan, too. Instead of chasing sponsor exemptions on the PGA TOUR, Saunders is committed to a full Web.com Tour schedule – 20 of the 21 regular-season events, with an eye on four more in the Finals.
“I consider myself a more experienced player on this Tour,” he said, “and because of that, it’s something I should take advantage of. I really should try to be one of the best players on this tour.”
Granddad, for his part, agrees wholeheartedly.
“That's where he needs to be,” Palmer told the Associated Press. “He has to play on the dot-com tour first. He's aware of it. He's very aware of it. Why do they want to play here if they can play over there until they're qualified to be over here?”
Saunders comes to Louisiana off a tie for 12th at the Chile Classic two weeks ago, when crisp ballstriking was offset by an inability to get putts to fall.
“I didn’t putt badly, but I didn’t make a whole lot of putts,” he said. “If I had putted well, I think I would have had a great chance of winning.”
A victory is Saunders’ other main objective in 2013. Not only does he want to earn his PGA TOUR card, he wants to do it with a “W” on his portfolio.
“In my mind, I’ve done nothing to prove I can be out there [on the PGA TOUR] because I haven’t won out here,” he said. “The goal is to win tournaments out here so next year when I hopefully get to the PGA TOUR, I can win out there.”
Getting one during Bay Hill week would be a nice start – even if it isn’t at Bay Hill.
“It’d be pretty cool if I could win this week,” he said. “That would definitely justify my decision to stay out here.”