Saunders (67) proving himself at grandfather's event

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ORLANDO, Fla. – Sam Saunders is making his sixth appearance at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but this week marks the first time he has earned a spot in the field without a little help from his famous lineage.

With his grandfather’s name plastered on the tournament signage at Bay Hill, Saunders proved Saturday that he very much belongs.

Saunders made an early move up the leaderboard with a 5-under 67, a round that included seven birdies and took him to 8 under for the week. It is his lowest score in 19 competitive rounds on a course where he has logged hundreds of practice rounds.

“Got off to a nice start today, unlike yesterday,” Saunders said. “Settled into the round early and really hit the ball well all day long.”

Late Friday afternoon, it seemed like Saunders might become a casualty of the 36-hole cut. He birdied two of his last three holes to get to on the right side of the number, then built upon that  momentum by hitting 17 of 18 greens in regulation during the third round.

Saunders struggled somewhat out of the gates in his rookie season on the PGA Tour, but he is buoyed by the confidence he gained from a runner-up finish earlier this month at the Puerto Rico Open.

“I can’t tell you how good it feels to be in this position, and in this atmosphere, and finally feel confident and have complete control of what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s a new level for me.”

After accepting five prior sponsor invites to this event, the 27-year-old feels he has validated his spot in the field – and on the Tour – as he looks for his first top-25 finish in his grandfather’s tournament.

“All the other pros out here support me and they all encourage me and understand what I’ve been through in the past few years,” Saunders said. “I’m not one of these kids getting a spot. I’m one of their peers.”