Commentary

Saunders starting to make his own name

Originally Published: March 25, 2010
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Sam Saunders walked into the Callaway equipment trailer parked just a chip shot behind the first tee here at Bay Hill Club & Lodge and found a familiar face who was more than eager to help.

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer and Sam Saunders
Stan Badz/PGA Tour/Getty ImagesIn four starts on the PGA Tour in 2010, Sam Saunders has made two cuts, including a career-best T-17 at the Honda Classic. He's playing this week on a sponsor's exemption in the tournament hosted by his grandfather -- the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Armed with a hefty metal hammer, five-time PGA Tour event champion Rocco Mediate was taking swings of a different kind, stamping his name and unique design into the back of the clubheads on his wedges. Upon seeing the 22-year-old, the longtime veteran offered some pro bono work -- as long as he could think of something to have etched into his clubs.

"Whatever you want," Saunders deferred, and immediately the suggestions started flying around the workshop. Son of Sam? Nope. (His father's name is Roy.) SPS? Nah. (Sam Palmer Saunders didn't love the idea of having his initials on there.)

Finally, Mediate was inspired. He began banging away at one wedge, then another. When he was finished -- some 15 minutes later -- he held the clubs aloft and showed off his craftsmanship. Inscribed on one: "Am I Sam?" On the other, an answer: "Sam I am!"

"You can take out the 60-degree, look at it and wonder, 'Who am I?'" Mediate told the youngster with unbridled enthusiasm. "Then you can take the 56 and go, 'I'm Sam!'"

It was a lighthearted moment but served as a perfectly appropriate metaphor for Saunders, who is starting to make a name for himself in the professional ranks.

That's been no easy task for the maternal grandson of a golfing legend. Saunders grew up playing junior golf at Bay Hill, attended Clemson University and turned pro last year. As a nonexempt player, he has made the cut in two of four PGA Tour starts this season, including a career-best share of 17th place at the Honda Classic two weeks ago.

Still, he is known more as Arnold Palmer's grandson than for his own achievements -- and it's a role that is difficult to hide from here at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he is competing this week on a sponsor's exemption.

In the opening round on his home course, Saunders shot a 1-over 73 that left him 7 strokes behind co-leaders Davis Love III and J.B. Holmes entering Friday.

To his credit, though, Saunders has embraced his grandfather's knowledge, even employing the seven-time major champion as his personal instructor before this season.

"He's still my granddad, but I also look to him for advice on my golf game and the way I approach it mentally and physically," Saunders said. "He really helps me out in a lot of ways, all aspects of my game.

"I went to him one day, and I said, 'I really want your help ... and I want you to actually come out and work with me hard; don't just tell me to slow down. Get a little more in depth with me.' And he did. We went out there and really worked hard on what I was doing and tried to come up with my own style of play of the game. He put a lot of it on me. It's not like he can tell me exactly how to play the game. He said, 'You need to figure out your own style and develop it and stick to it and don't listen to anybody else -- but me.'"

The man known in golf circles as "The King" knows a thing or two about receiving advice, thanks to his father, Deacon, who offered a memorable dose early in his own career.

"He said, 'When you go out on the tour, you just listen to everyone that you talk to out there, and they will help you,'" Palmer said before delivering the punch line. "'They will help you get back here to Latrobe and drive tractors.'

"Well, I said that to Sam: 'All you need to do is go out and get all that advice you can out on the tour, and you can probably get a job at Bay Hill working on the grounds or something like that.'"

That isn't a likely proposition for Saunders. He can receive two more sponsors' exemptions after this week before reaching the maximum of seven. If he hasn't gained membership by then, he has plans to earn his way onto the PGA Tour through its developmental circuit, with an eye toward competing in the big leagues full time in 2011.

"What I'll hopefully do is get a couple of Nationwide exemptions or go Monday [qualify] for them," he said. "You know, you top-25 out there, you get into the next week. I feel like where I am with my game right now, I shouldn't have any problem making cuts out there and top-25s and get on a little bit of a hot streak, and before you know it, you have status, and you're a full-time player on the Nationwide Tour. And hopefully through that, I'll get my PGA Tour card next year."

Saunders might be intent on making a name for himself, but he'll always be Arnie's grandson. Even with a different last name and no discernable external features of Palmer, he displays the same swashbuckling attitude on the golf course.

At PGA National, the site of that career-best finish, Saunders was faced with a long way home for his second shot on the closing par-5 hole. Rather than lay up with an iron, he pulled the driver off the deck. The result wasn't perfect, but according to Palmer, the intention was all that mattered.

"I have to admit that whatever anybody else thinks, I sort of had a big grin on my face when he pulled the driver out on 18 on the last day and hit that drive," he said. "I was very proud of him doing that."

With that type of gumption, don't be surprised if Saunders continues making his grandfather proud for a very long time.

Jason Sobel is a golf writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.

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