PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Sam Saunders is stepping out of his grandfather’s shadow.
A difficult task, considering that grandfather is none other than Arnold Palmer.
Making his fifth PGA Tour start, the 22-year-old Saunders shot 69 for the third straight round Saturday, putting him at 3-under 207 and tied for 10th at the Honda Classic, eight shots behind leader Camilo Villegas. So far this week, he’s shown two things: that he was certainly worthy of the sponsor’s exemption into this field, and that at least sometimes, he listens to his coach.
“He is my only coach,” Saunders said of his grandfather. “We’ve been working together really hard for the last few months now and that’s been going really well. I think he’s enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed it and my game has really gotten a lot better since we started working.”
Sure enough, Palmer – the 62-time winner on the PGA Tour who says he won’t be at PGA National on Sunday for the final round, even though he’s expected to play in a member-guest at a neighboring course Monday – is giving the kid high marks.
“He is really starting to come into his own,” Palmer told a pool reporter by telephone from his Orlando-area home Saturday. “He has a lot of things he has to pick up on. I won’t be specific. He has some shots he does not play as well as he should. That’s a little experience and confidence. I’m very pleased and proud of what he has done this week. It isn’t anything but what I would expect.”
Rocco Mediate has plenty of history with Palmer, and as luck would have it, he was Saunders’ playing partner Saturday.
After Saunders beat him by five shots, the 2008 U.S. Open runner-up was duly impressed.
“If he is the future of our tour, we are in good shape,” Mediate said. “First of all, he’s a sweetheart, but man, can he play! Wow! I knew he was good, but seeing him play a golf course like this which really brings out your strengths and weaknesses, absolutely fantastic.”
Saunders has essentially been groomed for this.
He was never pressured into golf; he was the first of Palmer’s grandchildren to truly embrace the game, and no one ever told him not to try to follow in the footsteps “The King” left during his career, either.
Saunders once won Florida’s high school championship, and after winning an elite junior tournament four years ago, he was the top-ranked junior player in the country.
That tournament win, incidentally, was at PGA National’s Champion course, the very track he’s playing this week.
“Got off to a good start and that kind of helps on a course like this,” said Saunders, who briefly vaulted onto the first page of the leaderboard after an eagle-birdie-birdie stretch on his front side Saturday.
He got off to a good start last week as well, a 5-under 66 creating some buzz at the Phoenix Open. He followed that with a 79 and missed the cut.
“Sam is beginning to pick up on things,” Palmer said. “There isn’t anything he can’t do. He can do whatever he dedicates himself to on the golf course. He has a mind of his own and he’s going to use it.”
Palmer also doesn’t want much in the way of credit for Saunders’ success.
“Be tough and play tough, but be nice. He has accomplished that,” Palmer said. “He has to also learn to be tough on the golf course. I think he’ll make his own mind about how to deal with things. All I want to do is give him whatever influence I can to help him do the right things. He’ll do it on his own. If I can give him a lift, that would be great.”
Mediate is convinced, the kid won’t rely on sponsor’s exemptions much longer.
“He’s got it figured out,” Mediate said. “He’s got some good people behind him, too.”