The word most often used to describe Sam Saunders has been lucky – lucky that he's Arnold Palmer's grandson and lucky that he's reaped the benefits of such noble family lineage.
When the subject arises, Saunders doesn't become defensive or feign guilt for his serendipitous fortune. He instead turns to some good-natured sarcasm.
“Well, I’ve played in 22 PGA Tour events,” he says. “Qualified for one U.S. Open. So let me check the math: 22 minus 1 – yeah, that’s 21 sponsor’s exemptions.”
The unsubtle intimation is that he’s received 21 tournament starts, the critical reason for which was his status as the son of the daughter of a legend.
But that narrative ends this week. A graduate of the Web.com Tour, the 27-year-old Saunders will compete in the season-opening Frys.com Open as a full-fledged PGA Tour member, finally emerging from that long-standing stigma.
No luck was involved. Nothing was handed to him. Being related to the man affectionately known worldwide just as Arnie didn’t get him to this point.
“I love him, I still talk to him, but I did it my way,” Saunders beams. “Nobody can take that from me. I earned it. This wasn’t a free chance.”
Last season, he earned five top-10 finishes on the Web.com Tour, including a T-7 at the Tour Championship finale, to claim a promotion to the big leagues for the first time. While he’s already played in too many events to qualify for rookie status, those experiences should help give him an upper hand over his freshman peers.
In those 22 previous PGA Tour starts, Saunders made the cut eight times – and he’ll enter this season knowing what to expect.
“I used to take heat for getting exemptions, but anybody who says they wouldn’t is lying to themselves. You don’t care why you’re getting that exemption – it’s an opportunity to play on the biggest stage in golf,” he says. “I’ve played 22 tournaments and made eight cuts. Is that good? It could be a heck of a lot worse. Nobody made those cuts for me. I had to work hard, bottom line. There’s no supplement for hard work. The only reason I’ve made it to the PGA Tour is because I’ve worked hard.”
That’s been a prevailing theme for Saunders, who has worked to lose the suffix “Arnold Palmer’s grandson” from his name. Not that he isn’t proud of that connection, but he also hasn’t opted for the obvious route.
A few years ago, Saunders moved from his family home at Bay Hill to Fort Collins, Colo., marrying his wife, Kelly, and helping raise a 5-year-old stepson, Cohen, and the couple’s 9-month-old son, Ace.
“Anybody asks me who my team is, it’s my wife and kids,” he insists. “It’s not my granddad, not my parents, not my sisters and friends. I did it my way. I live in Colorado, not Orlando. My granddad has never even been here. I moved here on my own.”
There exists a forceful sense of pride when Saunders speaks these words.
Sam Saunders and Arnold Palmer at the 2014 API.
His grandfather has been an influential figure in his life, both on and off the golf course, but he needed to get away. He needed to forge his own path.
Ironically enough, that was based on advice he received from Palmer.
“He didn’t give me the answers,” Saunders explains. “He gave me a path and told me to go figure it out.”
Says Palmer: “He worked pretty hard to make it and I am pleased that he was successful.”
At some point during his first full PGA Tour season, Saunders will be in contention and Palmer’s influence might become overstated. He is not, as has been reported, his swing coach. (He doesn’t have one.) He does not offer daily bits of wisdom about the game. (When they talk, it’s often not even about golf.)
There are times, though, when the grandfather will dish out some golf-related advice for the grandson – with varying degrees of reaction.
“I listen to all of it,” Saunders says. “Some of it doesn’t make sense to me at the beginning, but in time I understand what he means. Sometimes it isn’t what I want to hear; sometimes it doesn’t apply to me. He doesn’t want me to be exactly like him. He wants me to develop my own style and a system for myself that works. I know what I need to do on and off the golf course to be successful for myself.”
As he embarks on his initial foray as a PGA Tour member, Saunders will still be mostly known for that family lineage. But he will also carry with him the knowledge and pride that unlike other exemptions throughout his career, this one wasn’t handed to him. He earned it.