Eighteen-year-old Sam Saunders knew everything there was to know. Every kid that age does, right? Committed to attend Clemson University after a prep career that included a Florida state high school golf championship and four first-team All-State selections – not to mention medalist honors at the 2005 U.S. Junior Amateur – he just knew golf stardom beckoned. So when his grandfather offered up bits of knowledge, allowing the teen to take it or leave it, Saunders mostly left it.

What does Granddad know? He may have been a decent golfer in his day, but the game was different then. And why would Saunders listen to a man who tried to embarrass him in public? Like when Gramps clenched his fist and asked the boy what would happen if he popped him right in the nose.

One day, however, Saunders got tired of the act and stood up to him.

“I’ll knock you out,” he said sternly, right to his grandpa’s face.

Maybe that was a little disrespectful. Maybe he wouldn’t really punch a man nearly 60 years his elder. Maybe Saunders was a cocky, know-it-all kid who needed to be popped in the nose. But to the surprise of Saunders, that reaction was exactly what the old feller hoped would become of his tough love.

“I think he got tears in his eyes he was so happy,” Saunders says. “That’s what he wanted – he just wanted me to be able to take it from him and give it back.”

After three years at Clemson, Saunders opted to turn pro and get his golf career on the fast track he always believed it would ride. But golf is a humbling game. He quickly learned that his prodigious talent would only take him so far. That he did not, in fact, know everything. And that, boy, it sure would be nice to receive advice from someone who had been in his shoes.

Saunders turned to Granddad.

“It took me a long time to understand what he was trying to tell me,” Saunders says. “I wasn’t good enough at golf, nor did I have a good enough understanding of the game, to comprehend the lessons that he was trying to give me. Post-college is really when I figured it all out with him and our relationship became much closer, when we could talk to each other on a man-to-man level. I had to take some ribbing from him, but the difference came when I was able to give it right back to him. He was just trying to toughen me up and we get along very well now.

“There aren’t many people that can talk to him the way that I can.”

No, there are not very many people who will tell Arnold Palmer they’re going to knock him out.

“A lot of people look up to him and they idolize him and he is such a figure; but to me, he’s not,” says Saunders, now 27. “I understand that and I appreciate what he has done and the figure that he is, but he’s still just my granddad to me.”


There are perks that come with pursuing the same career as your legendary grandfather, such as playing in a PGA Tour event when you’re a high school senior. Palmer – whose youngest daughter, Amy, is Saunders’ mother – hosts the Arnold Palmer Invitational every year at his Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando. After Saunders captured Bay Hill’s 2006 men’s club championship by 17 strokes on the tournament course, API officials extended the 18-year-old a special invitation.

Saunders shot 14 over par and missed the cut, but that was just the first of 21 sponsor’s exemptions for various tournaments that Saunders would receive over the years as a benefit of his relation to “The King.” Four more would come at Bay Hill, the course on which Saunders essentially grew up.

This past March, Saunders placed 29th at that tournament, his best result in his grandpa’s event. But this year he wasn’t playing on a sponsor’s – or unrestricted – exemption; he got into the field with an exemption reserved for Web.com Tour graduates from the previous season. That circuit is to the PGA Tour what triple-A is to Major League Baseball, and “graduating” is akin to getting called up to the majors. Saunders ranked 13th on the Web.com Tour at the conclusion of the 2014 season; the top 50 get PGA Tour cards.

So half a dozen years after turning pro, Saunders had finally earned his way onto the world’s most elite tour. The exemptions via Palmer helped with experience, but there was nothing Arnie could do to get his grandson onto the tour where he won 62 times.

“It’s a spot that technically I’ve earned in some way,” Saunders said of his exemption prior to the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “And that feels a lot different for me.”

Bay Hill also continued an impressive month of golf for Saunders. Two weeks prior, he nearly seized his first PGA Tour victory, as he battled in a five-man playoff at the Puerto Rico Open. He missed an eight-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole, but still was thrilled with the career-best runner-up result and $198,000 paycheck, easily the biggest of his career. Saunders finished 24th the next week at the Valspar Championship, giving him back-to-back top-25 finishes after missing the cut or withdrawing from his previous seven tournaments.

And just like that Saunders had made more money in fewer events this season than in all of his other PGA Tour starts combined. In 22 tournaments prior to the 2014-15 season (the 21 exemptions, plus the 2011 U.S. Open, which he qualified for on his own), he earned $273,635. In his first 12 starts this season, which began in October, Saunders collected $325,005 (through March).

To what does Saunders attribute his breakout season? The quick answer is putting. He started to see a few more drop at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, the tourney that preceded his run in Puerto Rico. Though he may have missed the cut, it wasn’t by much, giving his confidence just the boost it needed.

The long answer is a little more complex. Yet, it explains why this Florida-born Clemson star is appearing in a Colorado sports magazine.


The 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional is best remembered as Rory McIlroy’s coming out party. Then 22, he crushed the field by eight strokes, setting a slew of records en route to his first major. At the other end of the scoreboard was 23-year-old Saunders, who earned his berth through a qualifier in Vero Beach, Fla. Those entrenched in the golf world knew who this kid was, but the sporting world at-large was just beginning to hear about Arnold Palmer’s grandson for the first time.

“I know what some people say, ‘He’s never had to work for anything – silver spoon and all – and his grandfather gives him everything,’ but that’s just not true,” Saunders told the New York Times prior to the event. “You don’t inherit golf ability. I’ve had to work for this my whole life, and I’m finally here. I earned this. No one gave this to me, and that feels so good.”

He opened with a 3-over 74 and followed with a 4-over 75 to miss the cut, leaving quietly in the eighth and final PGA Tour event he would play that year. Saunders didn’t fare much better when he rejoined the Web.com Tour the next month, finishing 65th at an event in Columbus, Ohio. So with the following week off, and his 24th birthday coming up on July 30, he embarked on a trip to Boulder to visit a caddie friend, Ron Levin.

They spent the evening of his birthday at the Fox Theatre for an O.A.R. concert. Levin’s girlfriend brought along a friend, who had also attended Clemson. They insist it wasn’t a set-up, but Sam and Kelly DeSchuiteneer hit it off immediately. Both were into running and nutrition, and they had the college connection. She wasn’t much of a golf fan, though, other than attending the “huge social event” otherwise known as the Wells Fargo Championship when she lived in Charlotte. She certainly didn’t know anything about Sam.

“I thought it was a neat profession more than anything,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh really, you play professional golf? That’s cool.’”

Kelly never figured a relationship would work. She had moved to Denver in 2008 for a pharmaceutical sales job with Eli Lilly and Company, and was transferred up to Fort Collins later that year. She also had a young son, Cohen, so visiting Sam in Orlando wouldn’t be easy, let alone traveling to tournaments. But Sam insisted on trying to make it work, so they met up as often as possible.

About a month in, things were serious enough that Kelly “decided to do the old Google trick.” What she found were, not surprisingly, pages upon pages of Arnold Palmer stories. Did she know who Arnold Palmer was?

“I sure did. Yep. That one I knew,” she says.

With that famous grandfather as his primary coach, Sam advanced to the final stage of the 2011 PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament (often called Q-School), which didn’t get him a PGA Tour card but earned him status on the 2012 Web.com Tour. So in the midst of maintaining a long-distance relationship with Kelly, Sam played his busiest season yet as a pro – 23 Web.com events and four on the PGA Tour.

Somehow, they made it work. So immediately following a 13th-place finish at the Web.com Tour Championship – leaving him ranked 50th for the season, with full Web.com status for 2013 – Sam flew out to Colorado. He took Kelly up to Horsetooth Mountain, which overlooks Fort Collins, on Halloween night – and proposed. Not even a month later, on the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, they were married in Vail. The wedding had four guests: Sam’s parents, Kelly’s mom, and Cohen, who was three at the time.

Palmer, though not present at the ceremony, certainly approved. Prior to that 2011 U.S. Open, Palmer spoke of Saunders to the New York Times: “I think he will do better and mature faster if he finds a young lady and marries her.”


Do better and mature faster is exactly was Saunders hoped would come from 2013, but his game faltered. After the wedding, he sold his home in Florida and moved in with Kelly in Fort Collins. Meeting new friends and enjoying the margaritas at the Rio in Old Town helped the city quickly grow on him, but there was no escaping the fact that it was winter in Colorado. It may be 60 degrees and sunny one day, but 20 degrees and snowy the next. Even if the sun is out, that doesn’t mean golf courses are in a condition to help a man get to the PGA Tour.

“When we first got married, he wasn’t dying to live in Colorado,” Kelly says. “I said, ‘Listen, let’s just give this a year and see what you think.’”

He could have easily built a case against Colorado. Saunders played 19 Web.com events in 2013 and missed the cut 13 times. Part of that can be directly attributed to a bulging disc in his neck, and some can be indirectly credited to the year of transition – new town, new home, and suddenly a father of a three-year-old, with a new baby on the way. Sam and Kelly learned in the spring that they were expecting their first child together.

Saunders certainly tried his best to keep his game sharp. He built a makeshift driving cage in his basement, complete with netting, a mattress to protect the wall, mirrors, and cameras so he could film his swing to study it later. And he became a member at nearby Harmony Golf Club, allowing him unlimited time on a course when the weather cooperated, and access to indoor hitting bays, which open to an outdoor range, when the weather did not.

Nonetheless, Saunders played so poorly that he lost his status on the Web.com Tour, meaning he had to go to Q-School to gain it back.

“My wife was about to give birth to our second child. I didn’t have a job. I had to go back to Q-School, and I was seriously considering doing something else, because I didn’t know how I was going to, you know, make a living,” Saunders said.

So he flew out to Latrobe, Pa., for another visit with Granddad.

“We were working together on the back of the range, just the two of us out there,” Saunders says, “and he told me what I needed to do, but he also said to me, ‘If I were you, I would be doing the exact same thing you’re doing, as far as moving somewhere else, getting married, starting your own life.’ That meant a lot to me that he supported the decisions that I had made and that I had kind of gone out and done my own thing.”

Saunders tied for 11th in the final stage of Q-School, regaining full-time Web.com status for 2014. The very next day, Kelly gave birth to a son, whom they named Ace. That’s Palmer’s nickname for his grandson – and a much better choice than Saunders’ nickname for his grandpa (Dumpy).

That one week – saving his job at Q-School and Ace’s arrival – redeemed a year Saunders otherwise would have rather forgotten, at least as far as golf was concerned. It rejuvenated his outlook for 2014, so much so that he convinced Kelly to quit her job so she could care for the boys full-time.

With Kelly’s job no longer a factor in their staying in Fort Collins, she figured it might be time for a move to Florida – closer to her family, closer to his family, and Sam could work on his game at Bay Hill, which is run by his parents, Amy and Roy. But Sam didn’t want to leave. He loved the quality of life Fort Collins offered, the community, the breweries, the Pickle Barrel lunch spot across the street from Colorado State’s campus. Mostly, he loved the chance to have his own life.

“My life doesn’t revolve around golf when I’m in Fort Collins, and that’s important to me,” Saunders says, adding, “A lot of decisions in my life and in my family’s life will be based around my career. I think it’s important that our home not be based on that. And the way that we raise our kids doesn’t necessarily have to be based on just my career. We can have a life outside of that, and Colorado and Fort Collins is that life that we want to have.”

Instead of sitting in the Bay Hill clubhouse with longtime buddies from the maintenance crew, or living in some other golf-centric part of Florida and seeing the same faces he sees every week on tour, Saunders made new friends at Harmony. He may be the club’s most elite touring pro, but he doesn’t act like it.

“He’s so good with the members, especially the kids,” says Eric Knotts, Harmony’s head golf pro and a good friend of Sam’s. “When kids come up to him, especially avid golfing kids and they know who he is, he takes time and talks with them. He’ll give them pointers here and there. He’s not bashful about that. He embraces people embracing him, if you will. He’s gotten to know a bunch of the members. He doesn’t really do his own thing; he’s just integrated into the culture really, really nicely here.”

Knotts sees Saunders at his course four to five days a week when he’s town, and if he’s not teeing it up at Harmony, chances are good Saunders is playing another course around Colorado. And believe it or not, he says golfing at altitude has helped his game.

“I grew up playing in Florida, so it was an adjustment for me to play in Colorado, just getting used to how far the ball went,” Saunders says. “But if anything, it’s helped my game because my game travels better now. We do play some courses at altitude and most guys on tour, when you hit at altitude, they’re doing a lot of math; for me, it’s just all feel. I know what it’s like. I know how far the ball goes at altitude for me and I know how far it goes at sea level. So it’s made it a lot easier for me to adjust to different places.”

Having made all those adjustments in life and golf, Saunders tied for fifth in his first tournament of 2014 and went on to record seven more top-25s. Four of those came in the Web.com Tour Finals, a series of four season-ending tournaments that essentially took the place of PGA Tour Q-School. The strong year secured a lifetime goal – a PGA Tour card.


It’s been an arduous journey, one that makes Saunders cherish his spot that much more. Because now he’s in a new battle: To keep the card.

He hit a rough patch early this season, but he’d experienced such stretches before. Saunders trusted his system – something Palmer long ago instructed him to develop on his own – and eventually broke through.

The goal for his rookie PGA Tour season (though technically he’s not a rookie because he’d previously played so many events) is to qualify for the season-ending Tour Championship, which takes only the top-30 players. A lofty goal indeed, but if Saunders comes anywhere close, at the very least he’ll have a spot on next year’s tour.

Toward the end of May, once Cohen finishes kindergarten, the whole Saunders clan will pack up their Ford F-150 and make the rest of the summer one long road trip. When they return, the family will settle into a new place they bought in February. It doesn’t have the makeshift golf facilities the old basement had, but when Saunders gets some down time, he’ll work on building a new one in the garage. A putting green could soon be a new feature in their backyard. There’s no sense in waiting to make the home their own when Saunders plans to be in it “for the next 20 years.”

Older and wiser, Saunders now knows he doesn’t know everything. But he does know he wouldn’t have reached this level in golf if it weren’t for Granddad. The old-school tough love molded Samuel Palmer Saunders into a man Mr. Arnold Palmer is quite fond of.

“Sam is a very polite young man,” Palmer told the assembled media prior to his tournament in March. “That’s one thing I’m very proud of. He has conducted himself very well through this early stage of professional golf and it isn’t easy. It isn’t easy for him to be my grandson and to carry on the way he has and do the things that he’s done. He’s done them very well.”

Palmer mentioned their work together on practice ranges over the years, and applauded Sam’s maturity. He then concluded: “I have every confidence in him to play the tour and play it well. And thus far, he has indicated that that’s going to work.”

Granddad would know.