(Editor’s Note: A version of this story appeared in the Feb. 13, 2017 issue of Golfweek.)
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – There aren’t many places in golf Sam Saunders can visit that don’t remind him of his famous grandfather, the late Arnold Palmer.
But there are certain venues where the reminders are far more pronounced than others. Arnold Palmer and the storied Pebble Beach Golf Links – aka Arnie and the Clambake – had a longtime love affair, and it didn’t take long for Saunders to encounter his first sign. When Saunders arrived to register in player hospitality, a giant portrait of Palmer staring wistfully out into the ocean while playing Pebble hung on the wall above him.
“It’s emotional, but it makes me feel good to see it,” Saunders said. “It’s special. I know he loved this place – not just playing golf here, but as one of the owners here. He really enjoyed being a part of that. He took great pride in the fact that he was a part of Pebble Beach. It meant a lot to him.
“But you know,” Saunders added, “he has such a great history everywhere.”
Saunders, who turns 30 this summer, is trying his best to write his own history. In a game filled with talent from all corners of the globe, it is not an easy assignment. Having been “hurricaned” out of the final stop in the Web.com Tour Finals last fall, Saunders is playing the PGA Tour in 2016-17 out of the No. 126-150 category (he was 148th in FedEx Cup points last season), a position likely to give him about 13-15 starts.
Here, Saunders delivers a moving, emotional and at-times-funny eulogy at Palmer’s funeral in 2016.
Right now he finds himself in a window of opportunity, starting with the sponsor exemption he was given at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at Pebble. (He shot a 7-under 64 to lead when he was done in the first round of the Genesis Open Thursday and has upcoming starts at Valspar, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Puerto Rico.) Saturday, Saunders made a sloppy double bogey at the par-4 15th (his sixth hole), failed to make a couple of short putts on his way in, shot 72 and missed the cut (even par) by a shot. (Those at 1 under made the cut, but were designated MDF, and didn’t play Sunday.)
It was near comic relief that Saunders stood over an 18-footer at his final hole, Pebble’s demanding, 485-yard ninth, only to pour the putt into the hole, dead-center. Too little, too late. He looked at his old Clemson roommate, Ben Martin, and chuckled as he retrieved the ball.
Sure, he was disappointed – it’s disappointing to miss any cut – but Saunders would be leaving Pebble with positive thoughts. Though surprisingly he’d never stepped foot on the property until his first AT&T start in 2010, Saunders loves everything about Pebble. His wife, Kelly, always joins him here, and the two embrace the overall ambience and breathtaking scenery of the place.
“Just look around,” Saunders said. “We don’t have to do much. We’ll drive around on 17 Mile Drive or just go for a walk, go on runs. We just check it all out. There’s so much natural beauty here. It’s hard not to enjoy.”
Saunders’ partner for the week was Dick Ferris, the former United Airlines CEO who was Palmer’s close friend for 45 years. Palmer, Ferris, Peter Ueberroth and Clint Eastwood headed the consortium that purchased Pebble in the summer of 1999, returning the property to American ownership.
Saunders and Ferris had paired together three times previously at the AT&T, even making the cut into Sunday once. At Palmer’s memorial service in September, the two visited – Sam respectfully calls him Mr. Ferris – and decided they’d give Pebble one more go. Ferris, 80, said it marked his 28th start in the Clambake and could be his last. He enjoyed his week, joined for three days in his group by his son Brian, a good amateur player, and Martin.
As he stood on the tee at his final hole Saturday, Ferris recalled how amped up Palmer always would be when Pebble arrived on the schedule and Saunders and Ferris were playing.
“Arn would ask me, ‘How do you think he’s doing?’ And I’d tell Arnold, ‘I think he’s doing great,’ ” Ferris said. “He’s a fine young man. Anyone who saw the memorial service for Arnold and watched how this young man spoke from the heart . . . well, it was special.”
For Saunders, spending a week at Pebble means running into so many people who want to share personal tales of his famous granddad. Many of them he’s heard, but occasionally there is a new one he relishes.
Honestly, he loves hearing each and every one.
“People will come up and say, ‘So sorry, I don’t mean to be bothering you with this,’ ” said Saunders, who is unfailingly polite, just as his granddad was. “Well, the furthest thing you’re doing is bothering me. Every story that I hear, I appreciate.”
That question Palmer used to ask about how his grandson is doing?
He’s doing just fine.