Q-school round-up: Saunders facing big moments on course and at home

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Sam Saunders made just six cuts in 19 starts in 2013.
December 16, 2013
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM

LA QUINTA, Calif. – There’s more than Web.com Tour status on Sam Saunders’ mind at Q-School. His first son is due Wednesday, the day after Q-School’s sixth and final round.

This could be an important week, both personally and professionally, for Saunders. He’s tied for 21st at 12-under 348 (68-75-70-64-71) after five rounds at PGA West and in position to regain strong status on the Web.com Tour. 

All players at Q-School’s Final Stage earn some sort of status, but the top 45 and ties are exempt through the second reshuffle of the 2014 Web.com Tour season; the Tour reshuffles – i.e. re-ranks players in the eligibility rankings based on current season earnings – after every four events.

“It sure would be nice if everything went as planned and I take care of business (Tuesday) and she can hold off having that baby for just one more day,” Saunders, 26, said. “I’m flying back to Colorado (on Tuesday) night out of Los Angeles at 9 p.m. If for some reason my flight wasn’t going to make it, I’d drive through the night.”

Saunders, who’s been known throughout his career as the grandson of Arnold Palmer, got married in November 2012 and now lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife, Kelly, and 4-year-old stepson. He grew up in Orlando, Fla., where Palmer owns the Bay Hill Club & Lodge.

Saunders made just six cuts in 19 starts in 2013, with just one top 25. He finished 130th on the money list, 80 spots worse than the previous year, to lose all status on the Tour. He had a back injury (bulging L5 disk) for part of the year, but said poor putting was the main culprit. His poor play forced him to return to Q-School’s first stage this year.

“It was frustrating, but I think it was really good for me,” Saunders said. “It made me work on some things I needed to work on and made me appreciate how nice it is to have a job. I’m putting well now, which is the biggest difference.”

CLUTCH TURNAROUND: Zack Fischer’s incredible comeback after a first-round 75 continued. Fischer shot 64 on Monday and is at 23-under 337 (75-67-66-65-64), one shot behind leader Scott Pinckney. Fischer is 26 under par in his past four rounds, making two eagles, 25 birdies and three bogeys. His 64 on Monday was the low round of the day on the TPC Stadium Course by two shots.

Fischer, 24, Monday qualified for three PGA TOUR events, and qualified for the U.S. Open, in 2013, making one cut (T-68, HP Byron Nelson Championship).

Pinckney, 24, shot 68 on Monday to hold the lead for the second consecutive day. He made just one cut in seven Web.com Tour starts in 2013.

RISING TO CHALLENGE: Sebastian Vazquez also is on the comeback trail. He’s shot 63-66 in his past two rounds – both at the TPC Stadium Course, the more difficult of the two layouts -- to jump more than 100 spots on the leaderboard in two days. Vazquez was T-135 after three rounds. He’s now T-26 at 11-under 349 (71-75-74-63-66).

Vazquez had seven birdies in his first-round 71, but also had a quadruple-bogey and double-bogey. In his past two rounds, he has 18 birdies, one eagle, three bogeys and a double-bogey.

“I’m very happy to be in the fight again,” Vazquez said. “I found something in my swing, especially with my driver because I was hitting the driver really bad. I am hitting it perfect now.”

The 23-year-old from Mexico finished 16th on PGA TOUR Latinoamerica’s Order of Merit this year. He won the Puerto Rico Classic on that tour in 2012.

Vazquez also won the individual title at the 2012 World Amateur Team Championship, leading Mexico to a second-place finish behind the United States. It was Mexico’s best finish in the history of the event.

WORK LEFT: Justin Thomas arrived at Q-School as one of the top first-year pros in the field. He was the 2012 collegiate player of the year – beating out Jordan Spieth for the award – and represented the United States at this year’s Walker Cup.

Thomas will have work to do Tuesday to make it inside the all-important top 45 and ties. A 66 on Monday at the Nicklaus Tournament Course put him within reach of that goal. He’s tied for 62nd at 7-under 353. Thomas is trying to recover from a third-round 78 that included a 7-over 43 on his first nine of the day, the back nine at the TPC Stadium Course. He made a quadruple-bogey 8 on No. 18 after hitting two tee shots into the water.

“It was just a crazy nine,” said Thomas, who turned pro earlier this year after his sophomore season at Alabama. “You’re going to have two or three of those a year, and I just unfortunately had mine the week when I needed to not have it. That’s golf, and over six rounds you’re going to have some of those. It was just kind of freaky.

“(Q-School) is unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of when it comes to golf. It’s just really mentally draining. I can barely even remember my first round, and I have one left. It’s hard to do anything to get yourself prepared for it. It’s Q-School. I just need to go play well.”

Thomas will start the final round two shots outside the top 45. One challenge he must overcome: he will play the more-difficult TPC Stadium Course on Tuesday, while most of the top half of the field will play the Nicklaus Tournament Course. The Stadium Course has played to a 71.9 scoring average in the first four rounds, while the Nicklaus Tournament played to a 70.2 average.

LEAD AMATEUR: Michael Kim, the 2013 collegiate player of the year, continues to lead the three amateurs in the field. Kim shot 74 on Monday at the TPC Stadium Course, his first over-par round of the course. He is T-17 at 13-under 347 (68-69-66-70-74). Kim is in the midst of his junior season at Cal.

Zac Blair, who completed his collegiate eligibility at BYU earlier this year, is T-83 at 5-under 355 (71-74-67-75-68). Anthony Paolucci, a junior at the University of Southern California, is at 356 (71-72-68-75-70).

DIVOTS: Zack Sucher had Monday’s low round, a 9-under 63 on the Nicklaus Tournament Course. He had six birdies, two eagles (both on par-5s) and a bogey. The round moved him from T-107 to T-42. He plays the TPC Stadium Course on Tuesday while most of the players around him play the easier Nicklaus Tournament Course. … T.J. Vogel, the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion, shot a bogey-free 66 on Monday at the Nicklaus Tournament Course, one day after shooting 65 at the TPC Stadium. Vogel jumped from T-76 to T-33 with one round remaining. He plays the TPC Stadium Course on Tuesday. It is the tougher of the two layouts but he has shot 69-65 there in two rounds. Vogel is at 10-under 350 (69-76-74-65-66).