Sam Saunders Q&A: Honoring Arnie
March 12, 2017
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
- Sam Saunders shared a special bond with his grandfather Arnold Palmer. (Chris Condon/PGA TOUR)
Honoring Arnold Palmer will be the focus this week at the tournament that bears his name. The players assembled at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard have gathered to remember the man who, through his charismatic personality and passionate play, exposed the game to new audiences and ushered in a new era of professional golf.
Sam Saunders had a unique relationship with Palmer, whom he affectionately called 'Dumpy.' Saunders, who now plays on the PGA TOUR, was his grandson. He admits that he once struggled with growing up in his grandfather’s shadow, but now enthusiastically embraces the opportunity to continue his legacy.
Saunders, 29, has conditional status on the PGA TOUR and will return to Bay Hill this week to compete in his eighth Arnold Palmer Invitational. As a child, Saunders sold lemonade along Bay Hill's 18th hole to raise money for the hospital that bears his grandfather's name. He was the club champion while in high school. He caddied for his grandfather in the PGA TOUR event at his home club, and first played in it as a non-competing marker at the age of 14.
Saunders has made the cut in four of seven appearances at the event, with his best finish (T29) coming in 2015. That was the same year he nearly won his first PGA TOUR event, losing in a playoff at the Puerto Rico Open.
He sat down with PGATOUR.COM to discuss how he plans to honor his grandfather, the lessons he learned from him and the eloquent eulogy he delivered at last year’s funeral. (Note: interview has been shortened for brevity)
What’s your goal for this week and the future of the Arnold Palmer Invitational?
No. 1 would be to play well. That still will be my focus, but it is bigger than that for me. It’s very personal. It means a lot to me to make it a great event. I want it to be one of the strongest events on the PGA TOUR this year and for many, many years to come, and that is going to take an effort on everyone’s part without my grandfather being around in person. He left such a strong mark that even though he is not there now, his legacy and his aura will still be a part of this tournament forever.
What do you feel like you can do to honor him going forward?
If I play well, that’s one of the best things I can do, but really (I’m) trying to live the life that he lived in my own way, be my own man and be my own person. The things that he did so well are what I’m trying to carry on now, and carry on the positive impact that he had on so many people.
I’m very small on the scale of what he did, but when I’m playing in tournaments now, every single volunteer I walk past, just smile and look them in the eye. You don’t always have to say, ‘Hi, how are you doing today?’ Just a simple, ‘Thank you,’ or, ‘Thanks for your help this week.’ I see them light up and I see that it means a lot to them for us to acknowledge what they are doing for us. The volunteers are huge, and the media. Always take the time, always treat the media as friends. They help promote what we do, so we owe (the media) a great deal in getting the word out there for what we’re trying to do.
How often do people stop you to talk about your grandfather?
Every day. I love it. There was a time when it was a little hard for me, when I was a lot younger. Now people come up to me and they want to show me a picture they had with my grandfather. It’s so neat for me to think about how much that meant to them, just that one little moment where he put his arm around them and he took a picture. It meant the world to them. All I have to do is listen to them and share their excitement and it means a lot to them.
Talk about how your view of being known as ‘Arnold Palmer’s grandson’ has changed.
I think there was a time where I felt like maybe I could just avoid it, maybe I could just go play golf and not have anybody talk to me about it. There was a point when I realized that it’s unavoidable, that this is going to be with me the rest of my life. He wanted me to be successful more than anybody in the world. I needed to embrace him and the fact that his shadow is always going to be with me.
I think when I had kids, when I got married, it changed because it’s selfless. The whole world doesn’t revolve around you anymore. You have somebody else that you need to take care of. I think it was then that I realized that I don’t need to make a name for myself. All I need to do is be a good husband and be a good dad. And I have the opportunity to carry on something incredibly huge, something bigger than I could ever be, in a positive way, so why would I make it about me when I can continue what my grandfather did?
Take charity, for example. I think there’s so many great charities out there, but I’ve already got Arnie’s Army. No matter how successful I get, even if I became the No. 1 player in the world, why would I go start the Sam Saunders Foundation when I already have something that is so great that I can help grow?The things that he did so well are what I’m trying to carry on now, and carry on the positive impact that he had on so many people.
So many people were touched by the eulogy you gave at your grandfather's funeral. What did that reaction mean to you?
It’s been extremely humbling, the fact that so many people were touched by that. I have had so many (people) tell me that I brought them to tears. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say, ‘Thank you, I’m glad I made you cry.’ It has meant a great deal to me the amount of players, guys with the TOUR, media, everyone, who have been so supportive and extremely kind in their words, thanking me for what I said. Obviously, I don’t think I was aware in the moment how big that moment was.
You had no notes for the eulogy. How did the words come about?
It came to me while I was up there. I tried to think about it beforehand, and I tried to take notes, and it was not going well. It made me really nervous to try to write notes and to try and think about what I was going to say. I basically threw the notes out the window. I had them at home, I crumpled them up and threw them away. I flew to Pennsylvania without a single note. I just went up there and started talking.
I wanted to try to give people a little bit of a glimpse of an Arnold Palmer that they didn’t know, because everybody knows him, and that is what is so unique about him. He was the most revered individual I’ve ever met. He was honest. You got what you got with him. His public image was very similar to his private image. He wasn’t a different guy at home than he was out there on the golf course. I wanted to try to talk about a few things that maybe people wouldn’t know about him and give them a little glimpse into, not Arnold Palmer, but 'Dumpy' (the nickname he was given by his grandchildren).
Your grandfather gave you a lot of instruction. Tell us about those lessons.
I don’t have an instructor. I work on it myself and draw back on the lessons I’ve gotten from my grandad. A good majority of it (comes from him), especially when we started working together when I was 21 and turned pro. They were no longer just the lessons of a little kid. He got a little bit more into detail and he would really get hands-on and give me more advice and not just about the swing, but how to approach the game and think about the way I’m playing out there. I’ll never forget them.
Do you think your swings are similar?
I do. I have a picture in my phone that is one of the coolest things ever. It’s an old picture of him where he’s coming down on the downswing and the club is in a position I like. I wanted to see what mine looked like compared to that, so I videoed my swing and paused it in the same position and there it was. I put them side-by-side and it was identical. This was 6 months ago.
Our swings may not look the same in full speed, but there are some similarities.
What was the history of you guys working together?
He put my hands on a club when I was a little guy, but not until I was about 14 or 15 and got pretty good did he start helping me out a little bit again, and those were very minimal instructions. Those were the harder times because he was hard on me and I was sensitive. But my dad was the one who was traveling around with me to junior golf tournaments. He was there to point out certain things that we were working on.
Once I turned pro, I really started working solely with my granddad and worked hard on more serious things. Those were the lessons that I’m still going off of now.
When I left Clemson, I was good, but I wasn’t that good. I knew I needed help. I knew I was tired of listening to what everyone else had to say about my golf game and I wanted to listen to a guy who was the best player in the world. With all due respect to every other swing coach out there, I wanted to be the best player in the world, so why would I not listen to someone who can say, ‘I was the best player in the world. I know how to do it.’ So I realized then that he’s the guy I need to listen to. He’s the voice that I can trust and know that everything he says, there’s something to back it up. He’s not just saying what he thinks sounds good.
You were living in Fort Collins, Colorado, but recently moved to Atlantic Beach, about three hours north of Orlando. People would ask, 'Why not live at Bay Hill if you’re going to live in Florida?' What are your reasons?
Similar to the way I was raised by my parents, I grew up close to Bay Hill, but I didn’t grow up at Bay Hill. I grew up in Windermere in a neighborhood surrounded by a bunch of kids who were my friends because they liked me, not because of who my grandfather was. And that life, being Arnold Palmer’s grandson, was a non-factor for me until I went to college and started getting pretty good at golf. Then it became a reality to me as to what that meant. Before that, he was just my grandad. My parents separated us from that so that we could grow up as normal kids. I want my children to grow up the same way. Obviously, my name carries zero weight compared to my grandfather’s name, but nonetheless I do play on the PGA TOUR. Orlando would be a tough place for my kids to grow up because there would be a lot more attention on me there than there is here.
(Atlantic Beach) felt like Fort Collins on the Florida beach. We loved riding bikes back when we lived in Fort Collins. We’d go hike and ride our bikes around town We were looking for that here in Florida, and instead of hiking in mountains, we’ve traded it in for going to the beach.