Rookie season, accident give Saunders perspective


PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Sam Saunders doesn’t hesitate when asked what smell he misses the most.

“Coffee,” Saunders says with a smile. “Coffee in the morning.”

To the untrained eye, Saunders seems equipped with a clean bill of health, a theory supported by his opening-round 64 at the Tour Championship. The score put him within one shot of leader Rhein Gibson and left the 28-year-old smiling as he walked off the final green on Dye’s Valley Course at TPC Sawgrass.

But then Saunders recounts the recent incident that nearly derailed his golf career, put him in intensive care, and took away his sense of smell.

Saunders had just capped his rookie season on the PGA Tour with a T-14 finish at the Wyndham Championship, firing a final-round 65 to secure his spot in the top 150 in the FedEx Cup standings. While he fell short of keeping his card, he had at least done enough to ensure conditional status for the 2015-16 season.

Days later, on Aug. 28, Saunders fell while riding an electric scooter and hit his head. He was taken to a hospital where the diagnosis was dire: a fractured skull, severe concussion and epidural hematoma – a brain bleed.

Saunders spent two nights in the hospital. While he left with some sensory deprivation, he also took with him a renewed perspective following the unexpected health scare.

“I don’t have a sense of smell at all. It’s 100 percent gone, which is weird. Taste is not quite there. But those are things I can live with,” Saunders said. “All things considered, I’m doing great. I’m very lucky to be as well as I am.”

Saunders made a quick turnaround after the injury, finishing T-4 at the first Tour Finals event to essentially secure his PGA Tour card for next season. He opted to skip the second tournament to rest and said he still hasn’t returned to a full exercise regimen. Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

“I’m not able to work out yet really, or do any high-energy activity,” he said. “So just kind of trying to lay low and trying to stay in shape with the little amount I can do.”

Saunders is best known as the grandson of Arnold Palmer, but he has plugged away in the minor leagues for years in an effort to make a name for himself. He finally reached the PGA Tour last season, a stint highlighted by a playoff loss at the Puerto Rico Open in March.

But his result in Puerto Rico was preceded by seven straight missed cuts, and in assessing his rookie campaign Saunders believes his struggles boiled down to one word: confidence.

“My game is good enough to play at this level, or play on the PGA Tour and win, I think,” he said. “I wish I had just believed in myself all year long and had a really good attitude, but I’m going to do that next year.”

Saunders displayed plenty of confidence in his opener at TPC Sawgrass, carding eight birdies, including six on his inward half. He played alongside former Clemson teammate Kyle Stanley, who shot a 66 and, like Saunders, has already clinched his card for next season.

“I hadn’t really chatted with him or played with him since college. We were just catching up on life a little bit,” Stanley said. “It was a nice group to have. Good energy, for sure.”

While many PGA Tour players see a trip to the finals as an unwanted burden, Saunders said he was “excited” for the opportunity after notching his second-best result in the season’s final regular-season event.

Of course, that was before the fall that could have kept him out of the finals entirely. Saunders’ recovery continues, as he still lacks some of the distance off the tee that he had earlier this year. He is optimistic, too, that some of his smell might return in time, but said there are no guarantees.

“I really hope so,” he said. “It changes more than you think.”

The majority of players in the field are playing for a job next year, but Saunders is content knowing that his plans for next season are secure. He won’t have to sweat every shot this week, hoping instead to improve his priority ranking and challenge for his first win. He has already made plans to kick off the new season at the Open in two weeks.

Having learned from his rookie year and survived a traumatic brain injury, Saunders heads into next season with purpose, eager to build upon the progress he has made in recent weeks.

His sense of smell may be gone, but the smile is as wide as ever.

“I’m very excited about 2016, and I’m not going to be thinking about just trying to keep my card,” Saunders said. “Try to think about winning tournaments, get into the majors, try to take a run at maybe making the Ryder Cup team. The sky’s the limit.”