ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — He’s known in golfing circles simply as “The King,” though one player at the Arnold Palmer Invitational still calls the tournament host “Dumpy.”
“You haven’t heard that story?” Sam Saunders said Wednesday at Bay Hill, with a hint of hesitation.
Saunders, a PGA Tour rookie and the 27-year-old grandson of Palmer, went on to explain that his older sister tried to say “Grampy” as a toddler and it came out sounding like “Dumpy.” The name stuck, and Saunders said Palmer has learned to tolerate it over the years.
Moments later, they were together on a stage posing for a dozen photographers, Palmer with a smile wider than it has been all week. The rookie is eminently proud of what his grandfather means to the game and the respect he commands. The grandfather is equally proud of the player and person Saunders has become.
“Sam is a very polite young man. That’s one thing I’m proud of,” Palmer said. “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 to do the things that he’s done. He’s done them very well.”
It hasn’t been a smooth ride.
Saunders toiled for five years before he finally made it to the PGA Tour. He first played Bay Hill as an unrestricted sponsor’s exemption when he was 18, and he was offered a spot in the 120-man field his first three seasons as a struggling pro. The grandson of the King has its privileges, sure, but it went beyond playing a prime tour event.
Palmer won seven majors and is more famous for how he made golf appealing to the masses. But there were plenty of struggles, and he has passed those along.
“I’m able to talk to him probably like nobody else can and we get along pretty well,” Saunders said. “We keep in touch and I try to make a phone call to him at least once every other week and let him know how I’m doing ,and he’s always there to help if needed but he also understands that I need to do my own thing and he’s very good about letting me just follow my own path.”
Saunders was at a low point at the end of 2013. He was married and had moved away from Florida to Fort Collins, Colorado. His wife was due with her second child. In what he described as a “need-to-go” situation, he went to Pennsylvania to be with his grandfather.
“I was up in Latrobe when I was really struggling after 2013,” Saunders said. “I lost my Web.com status. My wife was about to give birth to our second child. And I didn’t have a job, and 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 make a living.”
Saunders said they were on the back on the practice range, just the two of them, when Palmer gave him the reassurance he needed.
“He told me what I needed to do, but he also said to me, “If I were you, I would be doing the exact thing you’re doing as far as moving somewhere else, getting married, starting your own life.’ And that meant a lot to me that he supported the decisions that I had made and that I had gone out and done my own thing.”
A year later, Saunders made it to the big leagues. He went seven straight events without making the cut, but there was no panic. Saunders felt like he was heading in the right direction, and he showed it in Puerto Rico two weeks ago by getting into a five-man playoff. Alex Cejka won with a birdie on the first extra hole.
Saunders is back at Bay Hill, and this time he felt like he earned it. He still needed an exemption, but it came from a category of tour rookies, not an unrestricted one.
“It’s a spot that technically I’ve earned in some way, and that feels a lot different for me,” Saunders said.
Perhaps it helped that Saunders doesn’t share the same surname as his grandfather.
“The Nicklaus boys, I’m sure it was tougher for them,” Saunders said.
Gary Nicklaus, the third son of the Golden Bear, made it to the PGA Tour in 2000 and lost in a playoff to Phil Mickelson at the BellSouth Classic that was shortened to 54 holes because of rain. Gary Nicklaus once made the cover of Sports Illustrated as the heir to the Bear.
Even so, everyone knows Saunders as Palmer’s grandson. There is no hiding from it, and Saunders wouldn’t want that. The way he talks at Bay Hill makes him sound like a future tournament host when he explains why the greens aren’t in the best shape, and when he talks about his frustration over players skipping the Arnold Palmer Invitational or the Memorial (hosted by Nicklaus) despite what those legends have done for golf.
And while he has shown progress, Saunders isn’t satisfied. He wants to win, the sooner the better. His grandfather is 85.
“I wouldn’t say there is a sense of urgency,” Saunders said. “But would it mean a lot to me? Yes. And I’m sure it would mean a lot to him.”
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