Sam Saunders plays golf in the giant shadow of his grandfather — Arnold Palmer

On a sun-splashed day this week, Sam Saunders strode to the first tee at Riviera Country Club, looking for all the world like the other 142 professional golfers preparing for the PGA Tour’s only regular stop in Los Angeles.

He drove his first ball 300 yards from the course’s signature tee box 75 feet above the hole. It was perfectly placed down the left-center of the fairway, drawing approval from his playing partners, all amateurs, in the tournament’s Monday morning Collegiate Showcase.

His partners didn’t talk about it, but they knew that Saunders, a journeyman pro on the Tour, has golf royalty in his blood: His grandfather was none other than Arnold Palmer, three-time winner of this tournament.

Everyone was reminded of that several times when members of the gallery would stop Sanders and show him a picture on their phone of his granddad. One man showed Saunders a shot of himself and Palmer at the Honolulu Airport in 1983.

Saunders, 29, says he enjoys talking with fans who still revere his grandfather.

When a nagging pain in his ribs forced Saunders to pick up his ball on the 12th hole, he did the thing his grandfather did better than almost anyone back then — he became an ambassador for the game, continuing to walk along with his group, offering advice, helping them line up their putts, even keeping the group’s scorecard.

“We all knew who he was,” said Jeremy Paul, who represented the University of Colorado in the foursome. “Especially after he spoke at the memorial service.” Palmer died last year.

Paul said the group questioned Saunders about his game and avoided bringing up his grandfather.

“He gets asked about Arnie all the time,” Paul said.

Palmer won seven majors and was known as “The King.” Arnie’s Army, which could easily swell to more than 1,000 fans in any given round, would follow him from hole to hole, yelling and screaming at his every shot, all on the edge of proper golf etiquette.

Saunders’ gallery, sometimes in single digits, probably will increase into the hundreds after his opening-round 64 Thursday, seven shots under par. He was the first-round leader when play was suspended because of darkness; 48 players did not complete their round.

Palmer won in 1963, 1966 and 1967 when the tournament was at Rancho Park and called the Los Angeles Open. Palmer’s career, but not his popularity, was starting to slow then, as he won his last major in 1964.

 

Saunders grew up watching the L.A. Open — now called the Genesis Open — on television. After joining the Tour, he often heard his fellow pros talk about how Riviera is such a unique place to play. Thursday was the first time he played the course in competition and he doesn’t apologize for how he got there.

“I’m OK if I’m getting my shot because my grandfather had some pretty great success. It’s kind of hard to avoid,” he said. “The places I go, he’s left a lot of history.”

Once Saunders turned 21, and was preparing to play professionally, he started seriously working with Palmer. 

“It’s not like he was an official coach,” Saunders said. “But I didn’t want to listen to anyone else but him. I worked with him solely and it was great. He offered me knowledge that I would argue not many other guys in the world would have.”

But it wasn’t always easy and he never found Palmer to be a doting grandparent.

“His dad was a steelworker and my granddad thought it was his role to be hard on me,” Saunders recalled. “It was a different era. He was all about tough love.”

Saunders remembers one incident when he was 21 and on the driving range at Bay Hill Golf Club & Lodge in Orlando, Fla.

“He was being very helpful when some people came up for autographs,” Saunders said. “He decided he wanted to toughen me up in front of complete strangers. He says, ‘If he will just listen to me, he’ll be all right. Otherwise he’s going to end up digging ditches or working on a tractor.’

“Then he puts his giant fist in my face and said ‘What are you going to do about it, boy?’ I told him I was going to knock him out. It was the first time I ever saw tears of joy in his eyes. He just wanted to toughen me up. It’s a fond memory. But at that time I was really mad about it.”

Golf was not always Saunders’ sport of choice and he was never pressured by his family to pursue it as a career. He actually preferred basketball until the eighth grade.

“I stopped growing at 6 feet tall and realized there wasn’t going to be much of a future for me in basketball,” Saunders said. “I was getting pretty good at golf so I figured if I was going to be a professional athlete, golf was going to be my avenue.”

Saunders’ father, Roy, managed his junior career, offering advice and driving him tournament to tournament. Roy and Amy, Palmer’s daughter, oversee operations at the two clubs that Palmer owned, Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania and Bay Hill, longtime site of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

After a search for the right high school fit, they decided that Saunders would attend Trinity Prep, a private school in Winter Park, Fla., which was more about inclusion and diversity than catering to children of privilege.

“He was so unassuming,” said Mary Lynn Kranze, a 16-year teacher at the school. “He just wanted to fit in with the other students. You would never have known he was Arnold Palmer’s grandson . He never made that known. … He never played that card. He just wanted to be one of the kids and he was.”

Dave Ballard, who said he was Saunders’ golf coach in name only for four years, became a confidant. He would have long talks with the teenager when they were away at tournaments. Ballard counseled him when his grandfather urged him to go to his alma mater, Wake Forest, but Saunders wanted to attend Clemson.

At the same time, Palmer told his grandson “he wanted him be his own person,” Ballard said.

Palmer didn’t show up to any of his grandson’s tournaments or grandparents’ day at the school for fear of being a distraction.

Saunders graduated from Trinity Prep in 2006, and then joined the golf team at Clemson; after his junior year he turned pro and thrashed around on the minor league tour. In his first two years, he earned a total of about $24,000.

Saunders, knowing his game needed a kick start, left Orlando for Fort Collins, Colo., a move Palmer endorsed.

“He understood there is a lot of pressure being Arnold Palmer’s grandson,” Saunders said. “He said, ‘If I were you I would have done the same thing.’ What he meant was to move away from him and out of his shadow.”

In 2011 in Colorado, he met Kelly Deschuiteneer; they married a year later. After they dated for a couple of months, she wanted to know more about Saunders so she Googled his name and discovered his golf heritage.

“Although I’m still not sure at the time she really knew how big Arnold Palmer was,” Saunders said.

In 2012, he won more than $120,000 playing in 23 tournaments, but his career crashed in 2013 when he made only $27,156. He contemplated giving up the game to take care of his family, which included their newborn son, Ace, and Cohen, Kelly’s son from a previous relationship.

Saunders and Palmer talked about it on the driving range at Latrobe.

“He was able to relate to when he had a young family,” Saunders said. “I was struggling with my game and spending so much time away from my wife and kids. He said to me that it was such an opportunity and that the grass isn’t always greener if you think you can do something else. Every career has its sacrifice.”

Saunders pulled his game together in 2014 and qualified for the PGA Tour.

He played in 28 Tour events in 2015 and earned $587,571, including a second-place in the Puerto Rico Open, his highest-ever finish. In 2016, he won $510,079 in 24 tournaments.

Half-a-million a year is a lot of money except that 161 golfers made more than Saunders did last year.

He says he hasn’t set any monetary goals and winning a tournament remains his top priority. Last week, his previous year’s ranking of 148 on Tour got him into the Pebble Beach tournament, but he failed to make the 54-hole cut.

“If you’re on the PGA Tour you are very fortunate,” said Saunders, who now lives in St. Augustine, Fla. “You’re going to make a good living. If you play on the Tour and stay on the Tour you are very fortunate.”

Saunders recovered from his rib injury and began his play from the 10th tee Thursday morning after fog delays of a little over an hour.

“It was a lot of fun out there,” Saunders said. “It’s never stress free, but it was as low a stress round as I have had. …I would say it’s the best competitive round I’ve had in my career.”

Saunders knows that his grandfather’s shadow will always be nearby, even if his playing partners respectfully pretend it isn’t there.

“When I was younger I got a little tired of being asked about him.” Saunders said. “I just wanted to be myself. But now I’m very proud of being Arnold Palmer’s grandson. The things he did for the game. His contributions are greater than anything I could ever do in my playing career.”

Times correspondent Mike James contributed to this story.

john.cherwa@latimes.com

Twitter: @jcherwa


UPDATES:

6:11 p.m. This article was updated with play being suspended because of darkness.

This article was originally published at 4 pm.

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