A path all his own
It’s easy to assume why Sam Saunders is a pro golfer, but the real story has more layers and nuances than you might expect
March 12, 2019
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
It’s easy to assume why Sam Saunders is a pro golfer, but the real story has more layers and nuances than you might expect
When Sam Saunders was a kid growing up in Windermere, Florida, he and his buddies collected basketball trading cards. You know the kind. Fleer. Upper Deck. Topps. They’d go to the store and look at the price guides that gave the value of each card, then get together and make deals — and hopefully come away with some steals.
Like many other kids back then, Saunders was a huge fan of Michael Jordan, and his card collection reflected that admiration. But young Sam didn’t just want to collect Jordan cards, he wanted to be like Mike and follow him into the NBA. By age 13, Sam was nearly 6 feet tall and already had some AAU hoops success, channeling his family’s athletic genes into a different sport.
Eventually, reality set in.
“I kind of got to a point where I realized I'm not going to grow anymore,” Saunders recalled. “I was a power forward, and I wasn't going to be 7 feet tall. Basically, I realized basketball wasn't going to work out.”
Roy Saunders remembers the abrupt change in his teenage son, too.
“He was quite a good basketball player,” Roy said. “He was a pretty good-sized fellow for his age and could shoot the ball well. (He played) fairly seriously until he really just flipped a switch and said, OK, I'm going to focus on golf.”
Certainly it’s not surprising that the grandson of Arnold Palmer would choose golf as a profession. But the point here is that Sam Saunders wasn’t pushed or prodded into it just because of his family’s lineage. He may have been born into the golfing world, but he was determined to carve out his own path.
In a sense, Sam grew up more like his grandfather’s greatest rival. Jack Nicklaus was a multi-sport athlete as a teenager who eventually realized his best sport was golf. Arnie, meanwhile, was given a set of homemade clubs at age 3 and would spend all day on the course.
Saunders says his desire to become a pro golfer had nothing to do with his famous grandfather.
“I had no concept of what a big deal my grandad was until I was probably 17 years old,” he said. “Even caddying at Augusta when I did it for his final Masters in '04 … It just was a blur."
“I knew he was loved and all those things, but I just didn't really understand the impact of who he was and what a superstar he was. I didn't get that. He was just a really good golfer to me, and he was my granddad. It never was pushed on me at all, not from my parents, not from my granddad.
“If I had said, ‘I don't want to do this anymore,’ they would have been fine with it. I fell in love with golf and that's why I'm doing what I'm doing now. If it had been forced on me, I would have never made it onto the PGA TOUR. I think that's the case for most guys.”
Sam Saunders has been a member of the PGA TOUR for five years now. There have been stretches where top-10 finishes have been few and far between and missed cuts all too common. But he never doubted his ability and now, at the age of 31, he has the perspective to appreciate the journey he’s made.
“I think that self-belief is part of why I did,” Saunders said. “It just never was an option for me not to (make it). Ignorance is bliss, you know? I didn't know how hard it was, I guess, and now I'm able to reflect on it and look back and say, ‘Man, I'm really lucky to be out here.’”
Luck isn’t the reason Saunders is playing his first PLAYERS Championship this week. He’s earned his spot at TPC Sawgrass with his improved performance. He’s coming off the best season in his career, finishing in the top 125 and making the FedExCup Playoffs for the first time. A berth in the PGA TOUR’s signature event is one of the trappings of that success.
For Saunders, it’s his second straight “home game.”
Last week it was at Bay Hill, where he serves as de facto host of the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. He’s the face of the family now, the man who made a heart-wrenching eulogy after his grandfather’s 2016 death, and he handles the attention — and the attending pressure — well. During Sunday’s final round, he spoke eloquently during NBC’s telecast, a responsibility his grandfather once performed.
But Saunders, in yet another sign of carving out his own path, doesn’t live in Orlando but instead near the coast east of Jacksonville, Florida. He, wife Kelly and their two sons are about 10 miles from TPC Sawgrass, which not only hosts THE PLAYERS but is also the site of one of his junior tournament victories. He owns the course record of 59 at nearby Atlantic Beach Country Club, too.
“I'm really excited for my friends, who are some of my biggest supporters and are there for me all the time,” Saunders said. “I'm happy for them to be able to come out and watch me because it's such a big thing. Everybody in Jacksonville gets so excited for THE PLAYERS Championship. It's incredible.
“I think it's our biggest sporting event by far in Jacksonville. That's something I'm really proud of because it's golf. It's not the NFL. It's not basketball. It's golf, and it's our sport and it's the PGA TOUR showcase event. … I'm excited to see what I can do out there, because I love the course.”
It would’ve been easy for Sam Saunders to go all-in on golf as a child. The youngest among four siblings — and the only son — he’s been playing since he was a toddler. Among the family photos is one of him, wearing a diaper, at the top of his backswing, about to bear down on a little plastic golf ball.
“He’s been whacking at it for a long time,” said Roy, who once carried a scratch handicap and was his son’s first teacher.
Roy and his wife Amy, Palmer’s youngest daughter, wanted their children to have as normal a life as possible, just as she had growing up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a quiet town of about 8,000 located about an hour’s drive from Pittsburgh that her father, and Rolling Rock, put on the map.
So, the Saunders family eventually settled in Windermere Downs on the Lake Butler chain, about 5 miles north of the Bay Hill Club and Lodge, where Palmer had a second home. Saunders remembers the neighborhood as being “very normal” and said it’s similar to the one in Atlantic Beach where he’s raising his kids.
“We have tons of young children around us and we live on a cul-de-sac and everybody comes over and rides bikes and plays football and basketball, and it's exactly what it should be,” Saunders said.
Contrary to popular belief, Saunders is not your prototypical country club kid, meticulously groomed for success on the same fairways that hosted the PGA TOUR’s best players last week. He didn’t pull rank at Bay Hill.
“I wasn't allowed to just come here as a young guy,” Saunders said. “I didn't come into the men's locker room until I was 18 years old. There was no special treatment. I didn't go in and have dinner or lunch in the dining room.
“I actually always considered myself more of an employee. I hung out with a lot of the cart guys outside and a lot of guys that worked in the pro shop. Bay Hill was a place where I was able to practice and play but certainly not somewhere that I did a lot of hanging out.”
Palmer was sometimes there, of course, to watch Saunders hit balls on the range. But it was Sam’s dad, a talented athlete who tried to walk on at Florida the year after the Gators won the NCAA golf title, who nurtured Saunders’ love of the game.
Roy remembers playing nine holes with his son on the Charger, the third nine at Bay Hill, when Saunders was just starting to play. Saunders signed for a 50 that day – “and the next time we played, which was not too long after, he shot a 38,” Roy said.
“Ok, he’s figured this out. So, he got into it very quickly.”
Saunders never played the AJGA circuit, opting instead to compete on the Future Collegians World Tour focused on the southeast, particularly Florida. At one point, he was the top-ranked junior in the country, and the bond he formed with his father traveling to the different events remains top of mind.
In terms of learning the game of golf, he’s more Roy’s boy than Arnie’s grandkid.
“Everybody just assumes my granddad taught me everything,” Saunders said. “I mean, he did in many ways, but my father was a huge part of my golf game. I played golf with him all the time. He traveled with me to all the junior tournaments."
“They are some of my favorite memories, spending time alone with my dad and going to these tournaments and so, obviously, he taught me a lot about what I was doing, and he had to. He was there. He saw me play. He saw what I struggled with. He saw what I did well, and he was a huge factor.”
Amy says the competition he faced on the FCWT was good for her son’s development – in more ways than one.
“I think it made him work all the harder at proving himself because he didn't want it to appear he was just in the shadow or we're following the hanging on the coattails of someone,” she said. “He wanted to be a good golfer."
“And one of the things my dad instilled in all of us is don't tell me, show me. And Sam wanted to show him that he was good.”
Once Sam Saunders gave up the hoops dream, he quickly made his presence known as a golfer. He was good enough to start playing on his high school team when he was in seventh grade, then won the state title as a sophomore and lost by a shot each of the next two years. He eventually earned a scholarship to Clemson and stayed three years.
But swing changes and physical changes — he lost 55 pounds between his freshman and sophomore seasons, or as Saunders said joking, “I lost a third grader” — took their toll. He felt like his golf game had taken a step backwards, or was stagnant at best.
That’s when he decided to turn pro.
“He jumped on a plane and went to Australia and played for a month,” Roy recalled. “The Australian Masters, four different tournaments over there, and literally spent Thanksgiving with an Australian family who had a great time, made some good friends and flew back home.
“He didn't do very well, but it was, you know, kick the bird out of the nest and good luck.”
Saunders acknowledges that he probably didn’t understand the game well enough to learn much from his grandfather at first. Also, Palmer was demanding of his grandson, just as his father Deke, the head pro at Latrobe Country Club, had been on him.
“It's kind of interesting because I think my dad was raised with a father who was very tough and loved him, you know, for sure,” Amy said. “But he was hard on him, and I think my dad felt that that was the kind of parenting that you did.
“And it was funny because he and I, we'd have long conversations around Sam. ‘He hasn't lived your life, and his experiences are different than yours.’ I don't think Roy and I coddled him by any means, but I do think that we had more conversation.”
Saunders heard the don’t-tell-me-just-show-me mantra more times than he can count. Palmer wasn’t exactly one to dispense praise often, either, and it wasn’t until the 21-year-old went to his grandfather and asked for help that they really had a meeting of the minds.
“That wasn’t his MO,” the grandson recalled. “He wasn't going to tell me, ‘Oh, I think you're great. You're swinging beautiful.’ It was more along the lines of, ‘You just don't listen to me. You don't want to get better.’ I stood up to him a few times and I said, ‘no.’ I said what I needed to say. Some of the things I said, we can't even repeat here, but it was good.
“He wanted that. He wanted me to show him that I was tough enough to handle what he was saying. He knew I was going to deal with a lot of adversity, a lot of people saying things about me, good or bad, and he knew that I needed to have thick skin. A lot of what he was doing was trying to toughen me up.”
Saunders said his grandfather liked testing him when other people were around. He remembers one particularly good session at Bay Hill — not because of how the golf balls were being struck, but more in the camaraderie and back-and-forth banter. Their conversation was honest, the love genuine.
As would often happen at Arnold Palmer’s course, a group of people then approached the legend and asked for autographs and photos. As usual, Arnie obliged, making his fans feel like part of the family. Then he introduced them to actual family, to Sam, who hit a few balls while the others watched.
They were impressed. Arnie? Eh, not as much.
“He’s not going to make it. He doesn’t listen to me. He’s going to end up digging ditches,” Palmer told the group.
Then Palmer walked over to his grandson and stuck one of those big, meaty paws in his face.
“What are you going to do, boy, if I pop you on the nose?” he asked playfully.
Sam, though, didn’t necessarily see the humor in it. The mood had been great just a few minutes earlier, but now he felt his grandfather was testing him in front of these strangers. Would his response be meek … or would he stand up to the teasing?
“I got right back in his face,” Sam recalled. “I won’t tell you exactly what I said, but I told him, ‘I will knock you out.’”
Then something unexpected happen. Arnold Palmer’s eyes welled with tears. He grabbed Sam’s arm and said, “Good. That’s what I want you to say.”
“He wanted me to respect him,” Saunders said now. “He wanted me to be a man to him. He didn't want me just to tell him what I thought he wanted to hear, and I didn't.
“I finally stood up to him and from that moment, that's why I feel like I was as close to him as anybody was in those last years because he just didn't have a lot of people like that. He had a few very close friends that could tell him what he needed to hear sometimes and if they had a problem with him, they'd tell him, but everybody else, it was, ‘Oh, Mr. Palmer. Mr. Palmer,’ and all that.
“It made us a lot closer and it's funny how that moment to me changed our relationship because he respected me. He knew that I was man enough to handle what he was wanting to do.”
Sam Saunders admits that, early on, he had a hard time coming to grips with his golfing legacy.
Everywhere he goes, people want to shake his hand and tell him a story about their own encounter with his grandfather. Newspaper articles always add the qualifier, “grandson of Arnold Palmer,” to his name.
The shadows of a legend are long and challenging. As much as he loved his grandfather, Saunders wants to be accepted as his own man.
“I wanted to have my success out here, but, you know, we all have our things and he was a great father, he was a great husband, but he was a busy man too, right?” Saunders said. “He wasn't able to spend as much time with his girls, my mom and her sister, that I am able to spend with my kids. It's something that I cherish.
“I wish nothing more than to have a career somewhat like he did, but I've also kind of accepted that it's OK. I don't need to be better than he was to feel satisfied. I think, for me, I had to realize that just getting out here and being on the PGA TOUR was a huge accomplishment in itself and I can't compare myself to him.”
In a sport known for its entourages — caddie, swing coach, agent, psychologist, trainer – Saunders is something of an anomaly. Wife Kelly and sons Cohen and Ace are his “team.”
“When I come into the locker room, it's just me,” Saunders said. “I don't have six guys following me in here like most of these guys do now and I'm proud of that. Could I be better if I had all this stuff? I don't know. It's not worth it to me. I enjoy my life.
“I have a well-rounded life and that is the most important thing to me, so I may not be No. 1 in the world in golf, but as far as I'm concerned, with my wife and my kids, the life that I have, I mean, I wouldn't change one thing.
“Do I wish I won more golf tournaments? Of course, and I want to win golf tournaments. I want to be better, but I wouldn't change my life in any way, shape, or form.”
Saunders met Kelly through mutual friends in Colorado during a break between Monday qualifiers on the Web.com Tour. It was his birthday, and despite the fact that he had strep throat, the foursome that evening went to an O.A.R. concert. Turns out, she had attended Clemson a few years before he did, and the conversation flowed from there.
“I think I was back in Colorado visiting her about two weeks later,” Saunders said. Sixteen months later, they were married.
Saunders sees a lot of his grandfather in Kelly, who didn’t know about his famous relative until she Googled him several weeks into their relationship.
“She does not candy coat anything with me,” Saunders said. “There's a fine line between someone getting involved in a way they shouldn't, and then someone being your supporter and she does that so well.
“She doesn't try to tell me how to play golf, but at the same time, if I come home and I say, you know, ‘I played poorly today,’ and she says, ‘What happened?’ I'm like, ‘Oh, it's just golf.’ She's like, ‘No, what happened? You need to figure this out.’ She doesn't let me make excuses. She's tough, you know, and I like that. I need that.”
The couple originally settled in Colorado, but the winters were challenging. Saunders wanted his kids to grow up outside like he did, “playing, getting dirty, being boys.” When he played in the Web.com Tour Championship at Atlantic Beach Country Club, they knew they’d found an area to call home.
“Any given day at my house, we ride bikes to go pick up the kids from school,” said Saunders, who also surfs. “There'll be five to 15 kids at the house, on the basketball court, and playing football out, riding bikes, doing all kinds of stuff, and I love it.”
Cohen is 10, and he’s just finished his last season of flag football with tackle on the horizon next year.
“He’s really good,” Saunders said. “He’s a big, fast kid.”
Cohen likes golf, too, and just about any other sport that’s in season.
Ace, on the other hand, is the artist in the family. “He might repaint the Sistine Chapel,” Saunders said with a smile. The 5-year-old’s full name is Robert Ace Saunders, the first name paying tribute to Saunders’ father and paternal grandfather. Ace was Kelly’s idea, although she had no clue she’d hit a hole-in-one with the name.
Palmer used to call his grandson the same thing. “It was just really weird — she had no clue about it,” Saunders said.
Ace has a mild form of autism. Saunders said the diagnosis was made early after his son quit talking when he was about 2-1/2 years old. Ace now attends a standard pre-K class in a public school, and he is doing well.
“He's very smart, but I think the most important thing is that we got involved early and we got a diagnosis early,” Saunders said. “It's something that, at some point, I'm going to be a lot more outspoken about. That's going to be my passion because I think it's a lot more prevalent, obviously.
“In our day and age, a lot more children are having this diagnosis and fall on an autism spectrum at some level. It could be super mild. It could be super severe. Making sure that these kids get the help that they need at a young age is really important.”
Roy likes to say his son has taken a step up the ladder each year.
After three years on the Web.com Tour, Sam earned his PGA TOUR playing privileges for the 2015 season. He finished within the top 150 on the FedExCup the first three years and kept his card through the Web.com Tour finals. Last year he was free and clear at No. 120.
“To be a really good golfer, first of all, you've got to have good physical ability to do that,” Roy said. “Great hand-eye coordination and those things he has. I think the mental part of it is something you learn with experience. And I think we're seeing that in his golf game now.”
The next goal? That’s easy. Every day at 9 a.m., Saunders gets a reminder on his phone, one he set up before the season. It says: Make it to the TOUR Championship. That will require him to finish inside the top 30 of FedExCup points after the BMW Championship. And if he gets to East Lake for the Playoffs finale, Saunders feels he’ll have accomplished another goal — and that is to win on the PGA TOUR.
“You need that reminder sometimes,” Saunders said. “It's funny, as simple as that is, it just gives me a little bit of extra motivation sometimes to stay positive and remember that it’s a long season.”
His best chance to win came as a rookie when he missed a birdie putt to extend a playoff at the 2015 Puerto Rico Open. Saunders will be the first to tell you that “I’ve choked my guts out a few times,” but he feels strongly that his day will come.
He doesn’t say if. He says when.
“I'm going to win out here,” Saunders said. “That's when I'll be proud. That's when I'll be proud of what I've accomplished on the PGA TOUR. Also, at the same time, what's cool about that is, I still won't be satisfied. I think that's going to open the door for me.
“That's going to get my confidence through the roof, and I want to get back to the idea of every tournament I go to, I think I'm going to win, and that's how I played junior golf. There was no such thing as a good finish. It was either you won, or you didn't, and I'd love to have that mentality.”
Funny. That’s also the way his grandfather played the game.