When Sam Saunders stepped up to the first tee at the 115th US Open at Chambers Bay on Thursday, he had plenty of thoughts crossing his mind.
But among those ceaseless ponderings over hole locations, shot types, and green reads, Saunders focused on something else – the invaluable advice and teaching of his grandfather, the legendary Arnold Palmer, who happens to know a thing or two about winning in golf’s biggest tournaments.
After one day of play, Saunders sits 2-over par in a tie for 52nd place. Bogeys on four of the last five holes put a damper on what had been shaping up to be an excellent start to only his second US Open. Still, Saunders remains in range to make the cut. The top 60 scores (plus ties) advance to Saturday and Sunday.
The 27-year-old Saunders has learned to cherish the advice of Palmer and use it to become his own player over the years, but the road hasn’t been easy.
Saunders was born into golf. His youth was spent in Orlando, playing golf and learning the game at Palmer’s Bay Hill Club. He was talented and he knew it, but when his grandfather recognized his talent and potential and started to offer advice on his game, Saunders became frustrated and quickly dismissed the help. In an interview with Mile High Sports with John Ackerman, Saunders recalled a particular time he cracked when Palmer practiced tough love and asked him what would happen if he punched him in the nose.
“I’ll knock you out,” he said to one of the greatest golfers the world has ever seen. Palmer rejoiced.
“I think he got tears in his eyes he was so happy,” Saunders said. “That’s what he wanted – he just wanted me to be able to take it from him and give it back.”
Saunders’ attitude quickly changed towards his grandfather, whom he had always seen as more of an annoyance than a blessing. Saunders went to play golf at Clemson after high school and stayed there for three years before deciding to turn pro. He struggled mightily in his first year as a professional golfer. So much so that he took his game back to Orlando, to work with Palmer on refining it.
“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.”
Saunders knew he needed to do more than just improve his game to be successful as a pro, he needed a change of scenery. He had met a girl who lived in Fort Collins and he wanted to move to Colorado and marry her. A New York Times article says, “Palmer applauded his decision to move his home base from Florida to Colorado and encouraged him to stay the course.”
“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 told the Times.
It took a while for Saunders to adjust to life in Colorado. The unpredictable weather, the altitude, a bulging disk in his back, and the lack of golf connections saw his game suffer. As a Web.com Tour player in 2013, Saunders missed the cut in 13 of 19 events. It ultimately cost him his card on the Web.com Tour.
He thought about retiring later that year. He had a family to provide for now, and he wasn’t making enough money with the state of his game. He met with his grandfather and once again Palmer encouraged him to stay true to himself and work harder. He kept at it, and regained his status on the Web.com Tour and became one step closer to realizing his dream of making the PGA Tour.
Last year, all that hard work paid off. Saunders enjoyed a stellar 2014 campaign on the Web.com Tour, earning five top-ten finishes and tying for seventh in the Tour Championship, giving him enough points to graduate on to the PGA Tour.
“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. I did it my way. I live in Colorado, not Orlando. My granddad has never even been here. I moved here on my own,” a triumphant Saunders told the Golf Channel after his successful season ended.
Saunders’ rookie campaign on the PGA Tour has been solid. After a poor start to the season, he finished the Puerto Rican Open tied for the lead, but eventually lost in the playoff round. Saunders’ play had stumbled recently, missing the cut in five of his last seven events. But he turned things around once more and qualified for the 115th US Open on June 8th, co-medaling with Michael Putnam in the Columbus, Ohio sectional, using his caddie’s clubs while doing so.
When Saunders steps up to that tee on Friday, hoping to make his first US Open cut, there is little doubt that he will think of his grandfather – the legend who won the US Open in epic fashion 55 years ago this week at Cherry Hills Country club in Denver, and the man who helped mold him into the player and person he is today.
Saunders will have to play the best golf of his professional career if he wants to take the US Open Championship trophy home to Fort Collins.
If he doesn’t win he should rest easy, knowing that this is where he is meant to be.
Jordan Gillmore, an intern at Mile High Sports and a student at CU-Boulder, contributed to this report