Saunders earns trip to U.S. Open
VERO BEACH, Fla. – By the time Sam Saunders putted out on his 37th hole Monday evening – a swift 6-footer for par – the shadows were so long that the gallery assembled on a hill near the 18th green had to be careful not to move so as not to interfere with the fierce playoff taking place below. History was on the line.
Saunders, the 23-year-old grandson of Arnold Palmer, was on the verge of qualifying for his first U.S. Open. After a grueling day of golf in blazing Florida heat at Quail Valley Golf Club in Vero Beach, Saunders ended regulation tied at 3-under 141 with Andres Echavarria, who just finished his senior year at Florida, and Michael Barbosa, a former Georgia Tech standout.
The three were shuttled back to the 18th tee, a 450-yard par 4 with water running down the left side, and Saunders, under a dramatic stillness, managed an up-and-down par from the back of the green to safely qualify. Barbosa, with bogey, joined him as Joey Lamielle was already safe in the clubhouse after finishing at 4-under 140.
Though hardly a seasoned veteran in this game, Saunders has had his share of experience in both Tour events and U.S. Open qualifying. His voice broke as he reminisced about past qualifiers, where a shot here or a shot there kept him from entering a major field, something he wanted so badly he could taste it.
Saunders heads to Memphis this week for the St. Jude Classic, his seventh Tour start in 2011. He’s under no false pretenses why he’s received so many invitations to play with the big boys, but he also isn’t one to bypass the opportunity.
“I’ve played in Tour events, obviously I’ve played in a lot,” he said unabashedly behind the 18th green. “I’m not dumb, I know why I get Tour exemptions. It’s because of my granddad, but anybody else would do the same thing. To earn this, it just feels really good.”
Saunders went on the list of early leaders after finishing the first half of day with a 3-under 69. He was one of only nine players in the 56-player field to shoot below 70 in the morning round. As the wind picked up in the afternoon, drying out already fast greens, none of those players broke par again in the afternoon.
For Saunders, the round nearly got away from him. After making the turn at 4-over 40 in the afternoon, he went 4 under on the back nine to finish at even-par 72.
“I didn’t play that bad I just got off to a bad start,” Saunders said. “Next thing you know I shot 40 on the front. I doubled the ninth hole and I said to my caddie, ‘Make birdie here on 10, it’s a pretty easy birdie and there’s no reason I can’t shoot 5 or 6 under on the back.’”
Saunders isn’t obscenely long off the tee – though still long enough to draw low whistles all day long from the members at Quail Valley that formed his gallery – but he does have accuracy in his corner. It’s one area in which he has significantly improved in the past year.
“I drive the ball very straight now, I’m still fairly long,” he said. “I don’t try to hit it that far, fortunately I can still hit it a pretty good ways but I hit it a lot straighter off the tee and just have a lot more consistency and better fundamentals. Everything is just a lot more reliable.”
It’s for that reason that Saunders thinks U.S. Open conditions will suit his game quite nicely. You might say he was made for this tournament.
“I think it fits my game so well,” he said. “I drive it straight, it’s not always about hitting it pretty. You have to have a good short game.”
And with that, Saunders left the 18th green for the third time that day, this time with an important and long overdue task: Make a phone call to one very supportive grandfather back home.