The King’s love of golf and life shines on through grandson Sam Saunders.
By John Feinstein
Sam Saunders sat in the clubhouse early on a Tuesday morning. He was relaxed, clearly in a place where he felt comfortable. He exchanged greetings with players in the way one does when he is part of a club and is well-liked by the other members.
Saunders isn’t a star on the PGA Tour. He finished 148th on the FedEx Cup points list in 2016, giving him partial status for this past season. His goal for 2017 was simple: make the top 125 so he could take part in the playoffs for the first time and get fully exempt status for next season. He came up just short, finishing 129th.
“I turn 30 at the end of July,” he said in late June. “I honestly think I’m ready to play my best golf in my 30s. I’m still improving.”
In every way, Saunders is like many younger players on tour: He has worked hard and made a lot of progress to get where he is. And yet, he’s still a long way from where he wants to go.
There’s just one difference …
Ten minutes into the conversation on that late June day, the questioner brings up the name Arnold Palmer.
“I think,” Saunders says with a laugh, “that’s the longest I’ve ever gone in an interview without his name coming up.”
There’s no doubt that fact doesn’t bother him in the least. That wasn’t always the case, notably when he first turned pro and everything ever written about him said, “Sam Saunders, grandson of Arnold Palmer … “
“It was almost as if that was my full name,” he says. “Now, I’m happy to be identified that way. I’m very proud of it.”
Saunders still remembers the weekend when he first understood clearly who his grandfather was. He was 16, a talented junior golfer, and he had been invited to play in the Sunnehanna Amateur, a prestigious annual event in Johnstown, Pa.
“There were a lot of top guys playing,” Saunders says, the memory still bringing a smile. “Guys like Trip Kuehne and Nathan Smith—guys who’d been around the game and had a lot of success.
“Most of the field were guys older, more accomplished and more experienced than me. But they all came up, introduced themselves and wanted to talk. I was just a kid, a good junior player, nothing more. Of course they didn’t really want to talk to me. They wanted to talk about my granddad. They wanted to know everything possible about him. And to tell me how he had affected them at some point along the way.
“It was that weekend when it really hit me that he wasn’t just a great player—I already knew that—but he was truly an icon, something way beyond a major-championship winner.
Saunders paused for a moment. “I realised he was Arnold Palmer. There are plenty of guys who have won multiple major championships. There’s only one Arnold Palmer.”
Saunders knows he isn’t going to come close to being Arnold Palmer, or even Arnold Palmer. But since his grandfather’s death last Sept. 25, he has shown that he’s capable of keeping his legacy alive and moving forward.
His interviews in the days after Palmer’s death were clear-eyed, insightful and filled with emotion. His eulogy at the nationally televised memorial service blew people away. He spoke without notes and from the heart.
“Sam has always been comfortable with who he is and never made a big deal about being Mr. Palmer’s grandson,” says Ben Martin, Saunders’ college roommate at Clemson and one of his closest friends on tour. “But when I heard that eulogy, I was really impressed, even as someone who knew him.
“I mean … it was really something.”
Amy Saunders, younger daughter of Arnold and mother of Sam and his three older sisters, wasn’t surprised, either.
“We sat around as a family and talked about it,” she says. “What exactly should he say? What was really important? Finally we all looked at him and said, ‘Just speak from the heart. You do that, and you’ll be great.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”
• • •
LOSING BOTH GRANDFATHERS
Even though Palmer was 87 and had been dealing with a number of health problems and was in a Pittsburgh hospital for heart surgery, his death on that Sunday evening—five days before the Ryder Cup began—came as a shock to Saunders and his family.
“I talked to him that afternoon, about 4:30,” Sam says, voice softening. “Kelly [Saunders’ wife and mother of their two sons, Cohen and Robert Ace—whose name comes from Palmer’s nickname for Sam] reminded me that he was scheduled to have surgery and said I should call. He sounded fine. He told me he thought the surgery was going to help him feel better. I told him to call me after the surgery, and then I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me. Funny thing is, we didn’t do that very often on the phone. I’m glad we did it that day.”
Four hours later, the phone rang. Saunders saw it was his father’s number. Sam had also spoken to Roy Saunders earlier that day and wasn’t expecting another call from him. After picking up the phone, he was filled with dread. “My dad was with his father, Bob Saunders—my other grandfather, who we all called Pop,” Sam says.
“He’d been sick for a long time. He was 87, too. When I picked up the phone I was afraid Dad was calling to tell me that Pop had died. Then he gave me the news.”
It was Dumpy—the name Sam and his older sisters had always called Arnold—who had passed away. A month later, Pop died, too, leaving Saunders with a huge void.
As stunned as he was by his father’s call, Sam knew he had work to do.
“My granddad had been preparing me for this for a while,” he said. “Remember, he was an old-school guy in every way. I was the youngest in my family, but he had told me repeatedly that when he was gone, I had to be the man of the family—especially when it came to golf, because I was the one playing the game professionally.
“I called all three of my sisters and said, ‘You have to make reservations right now and get to Pennsylvania to help Mom.’ When we all got up there, we agreed someone in the family had to speak. Everyone was looking at me. It was hard, really hard, but it wasn’t hard. I have so many memories of him.”
During his eulogy, Saunders told a story about calling his grandfather one day. “He always answered the same way: ‘Where are you?’ That day when he asked, I said, ‘I’m at home. Where are you?’ He said, ‘I’m with the president.’ I said, ‘The president of what?’ [Sam paused for laughter.] “He answered, as if it should be obvious: ‘The president of the United States. I’m in the Oval Office.’ “So I said, ‘Then why did you answer the phone?’ And he said, ‘Because I wanted to talk to you.’ “
Saunders paused again, this time to gather himself, and then said, “He always wanted to talk to me. He always wanted to talk to all of us.”
• • •
THE BENEFITS AND THE WEIGHT OF A NAME
As he talked about his grandfather and that week in September, Saunders was about to start his preparation for the Quicken Loans National. His pre-tournament schedule wasn’t what you might expect for a player ranked 138th on the FedEx Cup points list at that moment.
He had played in a charity event on Monday, then visited the White House on Tuesday with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and a handful of players. They would be invited into the Oval Office and then to the private quarters of the building to spend some time with President Trump.
“I understand that, through the years I’ve definitely benefited because of who my grandfather was,” Saunders says. “I’ve gotten exemptions and invitations someone at my playing level might not get. That’s one reason I play in Monday pro-ams even if I don’t have to do it. I’ve come to understand how lucky I am to be his grandson.”
That wasn’t always the case. When Saunders first left Clemson, after three years, to turn pro, there were times when he bridled at the constant mentions of his heritage.
“It’s very hard to fail when people are watching you,” he says. “Especially when they know just who you are for reasons that really have nothing to do with who you are.”
He smiles. “I remember when it changed for me. I was playing somewhere on a sponsor’s exemption, and all three of us were well outside the cut line late on Friday. The rules officials came out and told us there was no way for us to finish before dark. They hinted it would be better for them if we all just WD’d, so we wouldn’t have to come back Saturday morning and they could start the tee times a little later. So, we all WD’d. The next thing I know, my Twitter is blowing up with people calling me spoiled and saying I was a typical silver-spoon kid who didn’t know how to deal with adversity. It really bothered me.
“Kelly sat me down and told me I couldn’t let these things bother me, that the only person I should be concerned about pleasing when it came to golf was me. I realized she was right. I got off Twitter that day and haven’t been on it since then.”
‘I remember once he asked me how I felt when I wasn’t playing well. I said, “Completely out of control, as if there’s nothing I can do to stop what’s going on.” He looked at me and said, “That’s exactly how I felt. It happens to everyone, and then, it does stop.” ’ — Sam Saunders on his granddad, Arnold Palmer
That’s just one way in which Saunders is old school. Like his grandfather, he has never been a believer in all the technology in golf or in the entourages that now surround so many players. The closest thing he had to a swing coach was his father—who first taught him the game as a kid. He doesn’t have a sport psychologist or a personal trainer, a masseuse or an omnipresent agent. When he became a star junior as a teenager—he was once the No. 1-ranked junior in the country—his grandfather talked to him about the vagaries of a pro’s life and continued to do so when he turned pro.
“I remember once he asked me how I felt when I wasn’t playing well,” Saunders says.
“I said, ‘Completely out of control, as if there’s nothing I can do to stop what’s going on.’ He looked at me and said, ‘That’s exactly how I felt. It happens to everyone, and then, it does stop. You have to always remember that. Don’t ever think it won’t get better, because as long as you keep working, it will stop.”
Martin remembers watching Saunders deal with that at Clemson: “He was so good as a junior that I think, at times, he was disappointed in his college career. But you never sensed there was any give-up or woe-is-me in him at all. He’s done the same thing as a pro. It’s not easy, but he’s steadily gotten better.”
It has been—as the players say—a process. Saunders is 6 feet and 180 pounds with wavy brown hair, an easy smile and a square jaw. He hits it long enough but would hardly be considered a bomber in what has become a bomber’s world on tour. He worries—as his grandfather did—about technology taking over the sport but believes the key to his game improving—as with so many players—is putting. “I’m at the point now where I spend more time putting and less time worrying about my ball-striking,” he says. “I feel like that’s going to pay off in the next 10 years.
“My grandfather and a handful of players had the ability to make something that’s very hard—making it to the PGA Tour and then winning on the PGA Tour—look easy. It’s not easy. I know how hard it’s been for me to get to where I am now. When I was a kid, I wanted to be the best player in the world. I don’t know anyone out here who didn’t have that dream at some point. I played with a lot of guys who were really good at golf—still are—who are playing mini-tours or not playing at all, so I know how lucky I am to be here.
“I want to win. I’ve had one great chance [Puerto Rico, where he lost in a playoff in 2015] and other weeks where I’ve been in the hunt. I believe I’m good enough.”
Saunders wants to make his own way on tour, but he’s keenly aware of the role he is expected to play—and wants to play—in preserving his grandfather’s legacy. He will leave the business side to others. His job is to make sure people never forget who Arnold Palmer was. “I think that’s a role Sam is willing to embrace,” Amy Saunders says.
”You know, my dad could be tough on him at times. On occasion, he told Roy and me that we weren’t tough enough on him. Sam learned from him and learned how to deal with him. He told me a story once about how he’d really gotten on Sam one day, and Sam kind of went back at him. That was important, I think. My dad respected the fact that he didn’t back down. It was good for both of them.”
Saunders says it happened on the range: “My granddad jumped on me, and I went back at him. He loved it. It was a very important day for both of us, I think.”
Saunders and Kelly met in Colorado when Sam was playing the Web.com Tour in 2011. They were married a year later and settled in Fort Collins. Now they live in Atlantic Beach, which is between Jacksonville and Ponte Vedra Beach. Almost as important, it’s a two-hour drive from Orlando—where Saunders will continue to work with his parents on the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
“I’d like to think, I hope, we can continue to make sure the tournament has a good field every year and that we can continue to build it the way my grandfather would have wanted,” he says. “I know a good deal of that responsibility falls on me now.”
He smiles again. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
PALMER ESTATE SUPPORTS BUSINESSES AND CHARITIES
Long before Arnold Palmer died, he made certain that the businesses and charities he had built would be prepared to continue without him.
“About seven years ago, we formed an Arnold Palmer executive committee,” says Alastair Johnston, who has worked for the International Management Group for 45 years and for Palmer for 40.
“There were four of us: Arnold, myself, Amy [Saunders, Palmer’s younger daughter] and Steve Richards, who was our internal counsel. We met frequently to discuss the business then and going forward. Arnold never came to the meetings. He left it to us.”
Most important was ensuring that the Arnie’s Army Charitable Foundation would be in a position to continue Palmer’s legacy. In Palmer’s will, just less than $10 million was designated to be paid to Arnie’s Army—a pledge he had made two years before his death and the balance of a much larger amount he committed to funding his charitable foundation during his lifetime.
As in the past, much of the money raised will go to the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, named for Palmer’s late first wife. But the executive committee has plans to expand the foundation, which is the proprietor of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Arnold Palmer Cup. Next year, the Palmer Cup, contested among college golfers, will expand from 24 players to 48 to include women. Players will compete as teams, and it will be the United States versus the World instead of the U.S. versus Europe, as it has been in the past.
In all, according to court documents first acquired by WESH-TV in Orlando last fall, Palmer’s estate was worth about $875 million. His widow, Kit, will receive $10 million. Most of the estate will go to Palmer’s daughters, Peggy and Amy. According to Johnston, Amy Saunders will be the point person for the executive committee.
Palmer’s other businesses, including course design, senior communities, tea sales, automobiles and licensing—there are now 400 Arnold Palmer stores in Asia selling everything possible with the umbrella logo—will go on with people already in place.
The only part of the will that surprised those who knew Palmer was the $25,000 left to Doc Giffin, Palmer’s publicist, close friend and right-hand man for 51 years. Giffin was one of eight employees left that amount. “Arnold gave me very specific instructions to be certain that Doc was taken care of financially for the rest of his life,” Johnston says, “and I will absolutely do that.” Giffin, who is 88, is “virtually” retired—his word—although he makes occasional appearances at Palmer’s Latrobe office when asked to help out.
What will Sam Saunders’ role be in the future? “Whatever he wants it to be, really,” Johnston says. “He’s been so impressive since Arnold’s death. I try to keep him updated on the business through Amy. Right now though, we’re all encouraging him to play golf and follow his dream. That’s what Arnold would have wanted. His being an active part of the family business has no time limit. There’s no deadline. It’s strictly up to him.” —J.F.