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Recovered from skiing accident, Sam Saunders energized to chase TOUR return

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35-year-old stands No. 11 on Korn Ferry Tour’s season-long points race

    Written by Adam Stanley @adam_stanley

    The toughest part for Sam Saunders about breaking his leg while skiing?

    He was doing all the right things with his body and mind. He was building toward regaining his PGA TOUR card. And then he had a freak accident in January 2021, slipping awkwardly on some ice down a mountain in Colorado, and the process to return to the TOUR had to, essentially, start all over again.

    Now his robust recovery from a myriad of injuries is over. He’s 35. There’s no time like the present to start re-achieving his dreams.

    “My one and only goal was to win, but getting back to the PGA TOUR, which I feel comfortable saying is where I very much belong,” said Saunders of his objectives when the calendar turned to 2023. “I think my game is absolutely good enough to be a consistently good player and winner on the PGA TOUR. I feel like where I am physically and mentally, having been through what I’ve been through … I played five years on the PGA TOUR, but in my opinion, I underachieved greatly for myself.

    “I think I’m better than what I’ve showed, so I want to get out there and prove to myself that I am good enough to win (on TOUR) and I am one of the best players in the world. I know I’ve put in the work now, and with what’s happened off the course, I know I can handle it.”

    On the strength of a runner-up finish at The Panama Championship, Saunders entered this week’s Club Car Championship at The Landings Golf & Athletic Club at No. 11 on the season-long standings, well positioned to chase a TOUR return via the top 30 at season’s end. His longtime friend Eric Cole, who recently broke onto the TOUR scene with a runner-up at The Honda Classic, is one of several friends on TOUR whom he looks to join in 2024. So far, so good in his quest.

    So, what did happen off the course? Saunders didn’t just break his leg. With a deep breath, he unloads.

    In 2019, his last full season on the PGA TOUR, he pushed through an infection in a bone in his mouth, which came from a failed dental implant from when he was 16. He was sick all year, he explained, battling through hand, foot and mouth disease, the flu, shingles, and viral conjunctivitis. To a fault, Saunders admitted, he tried to be a “tough guy” and did not end up taking a medical leave from the TOUR.

    “That year was a complete waste for me,” he said.

    Saunders had to return to the Korn Ferry Tour Finals that year, but he ended up breaking his collarbone riding a one-wheeled electric scooter board. He had surgery on that, but he got healthy again and competed in a few PGA TOUR events in 2019-20. The COVID-19 pandemic slowed his momentum and he decided to have surgery on a cyst in his wrist that was flaring up so bad that it was impacting his swing. That surgery was supposed to happen on Jan. 16, 2021. The day prior, however, was his skiing accident. He broke his left tibia.

    “So, when I went for my wrist surgery I also got surgery on my leg,” Saunders said, laughing. “It wasn’t just a leg break. It was a lot of stuff.”

    The Clemson University alum said the leg break, a poorly timed accident, really stung his psyche. While he’s mentally returned from that stretch to become more inspired than ever to play good golf, physically he still needs to start his warm-up routine much earlier than most on cold mornings before tournaments. There was a silver lining, though.

    “It’s been a lot, but I enjoy the chase. And health and fitness has become a huge part of my life,” said Saunders. “It’s great for golf but what’s really cool for me is I’ve got a 14-year-old and a 9-year-old, and I can wrestle around with my 14-year-old who is a big, strong kid. It’s kept me younger in a way I want to be for the rest of my life so I can keep enjoying doing things with my kids.”

    Speaking of kids, Saunders can’t help but notice he’s become a bit of an elder statesman on the Korn Ferry Tour these days – “A couple of young, young guys said, ‘Yes, sir,’ to me” – and when he lost in a playoff at The Panama Championship, it was to Pierceson Coody, a 23-year-old who finished atop the 2022 PGA TOUR University Ranking.

    Still, when he is in the PGA TOUR locker rooms, like at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard – he plays a central role there as Palmer’s grandson – it warms his heart when TOUR pros are happy to see him, just as he is happy to see them.

    “I have a lot of buddies (on TOUR) and hanging out in the locker room at Bay Hill this year and seeing all the guys come in … 90% of them said, ‘Hey, great playing in Panama.’ All these guys are congratulating me and saying they’re hoping to see me back out (on TOUR),” said Saunders. “I’m one of the older guys (on the Korn Ferry Tour) now. But I love it and I look forward to being back on TOUR, and their support means a lot for sure.”

    Saunders is fully equipped both physically and mentally as he hunts for a PGA TOUR card at the end of this season – his first healthy year in nearly a half decade. He’s physically better than he’s ever been, he has a singular goal, and there are no more excuses for poor results. Of course, he’ll have to top plenty of those young kids to finish in the top 30 on the season-long standings – but he’s up for the challenge.

    And he’s excited for it.

    “You put in the work, and you get rewarded. If you don’t, you sit back and you wish you were winning. I just don’t think I have to wish anymore,” said Saunders. “I think this is my time to go out and prove how good I can be.”

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