PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. —Sam Saunders pulled off something his grandfather never accomplished: total mastery of George Thomas’s Riviera design.
Sure, his late grandfather, Arnold Palmer, won three Los Angeles Opens and even contended in this tournament as late as 1983 at the age of 53. But those wins and great days came at nearby Rancho Park. Palmer’s best round at Riviera? A 68, twice.
“I know he loved it out here,” Saunders said after a bogey-free 64 has him atop the Genesis Open leaderboard. “We didn’t talk necessarily specifically about this course. He just always talked about how much he loved coming out here and playing. I think his celebrity matched pretty well with the celebrity atmosphere that you have here, so he was obviously very comfortable with that.”
Saunders did not overpower Riviera, instead using driving accuracy (12 of 14 fairways), scrambling (6 for 6 on greens missed) and just 25 putts to post seven birdies.
“I had some people tell me in the past that they thought this would be a good fit for me, some friends that play out on the Tour,” he said. ” I had always wanted to come play in the event obviously and was excited to come the first time, but now I understand why they said that. It’s really kind of, I think, a shotmaking golf course.”
Playing for the first time in this event on a sponsor’s exemption from Genesis, Saunders tied his career PGA Tour low round. Saunders said the combination of field strength and venue made this as good as any competitive round he has played. And unlike a growing number of players, Saunders loves Riviera’s “unbelievable” poa annua greens.
“I love poa annua greens when they’re like this and they’re relatively firm and fast,” Saunders said. “I think it’s as good a surface as any.”
Saunders, 29, holds conditional Tour status after finishing 148th in the 2016 FedEx Cup standings. His best finish in five starts: a T-57 at the RSM Classic.
With round one play suspended by darkness and a bleak weather forecast likely wiping out most of Friday play, Saunders said it was a “bit of a bonus” to get off to a strong start.
“To be able to sit back and be in the position where I’m in is nice. … I mentally prepared for not playing golf tomorrow actually as I approached this week, and I said I’ll try to go and get off to a good start and know that day two is probably not going to happen until Saturday, so it would have been nice to get off to a good start and obviously this is a huge bonus.”